Korean Peninsula on the Edge

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE last couple of months have seen the crisis in the Korean peninsula escalating to unprecedented levels and there are no indications that the dangerous situation is going to be defused any time soon, going by the statements coming from Washington. In the first week of September, even as BRICS leaders had started assembling in the Chinese city of Xiamen for their annual summit, North Korea conducted its most powerful nuclear test so far. The international community, spearheaded by the United States, had imposed draconian sanctions against the North after the series of missile tests it had conducted since the beginning of the year. The American president, Donald Trump, had threatened “fire and fury such as the world had never seen” in August if the North went ahead with more missile and nuclear tests. It was an implicit threat to use nuclear weapons by the world's largest superpower.

The North had seemingly backtracked from the threat to target the waters around Guam which hosts one of America's biggest military bases after the “fire and fury” speech of the American president. Trump tweeted that the North Koreans were treating the United States with respect once again. However, Korea watchers were not surprised when the North launched a ballistic missile over Japan in late August. It was the first time that a North Korean missile flew over another country. The North Korean action was a response to the war games that the American and South Korean armies were conducting in the South along its borders. 17,500 American troops along with 50,000 South Korean soldiers participated in the war games. The two armies had simulated “decapitation” raids on the North Korean leadership and surgical strikes on nuclear and missile sites in the North. US B-1B supersonic bombers, which are nuclear capable, were making regular flights between Guam and the Korean peninsula during the eleven day long joint US-South Korean military exercises in August. The long range bombers started participating in the military exercises from 2016 only.

China and Russia had called on the Americans to postpone their military exercises on the Korean peninsula and on North Korea to simultaneously stop testing its new missiles and nuclear weapons. The leadership of the two countries said that the stopping of the annual war games by the Americans on the Korean peninsula is an important prerequisite to get meaningful talks restarted to defuse the long running crisis. But the appeal fell on deaf ears. The new South Korean president who had promised to improve relations with the North, has been overtaken by the events of the last few months. The man who had protested against the installation of the American THAAD missiles on Korean soil, has now been forced to adopt a more hawkish tone and is now requesting for four more of the systems to be located in South Korea. China had strongly protested when the first THAAD system was stealthily installed by the United States as South Koreans were preparing to go to the polls.

President Moon however seems to have got an assurance from Washington that no pre-emptive attacks will be launched against North Korea though President Trump has again threatened punitive action against the North after the latest nuclear test. An attack on the North could lead to immediate retaliation against the South where the United States has many bases. The North has always viewed the government in the South as inconsequential for its survival. Since the end of the Korean war in 1953, the US has wartime operational control over South Korea and jurisdiction over half the demilitarised zone (DMZ) which divides the North and the South. There are 28, 500 American troops permanently based in South Korea. Pyongyang's top priority always has been to engage in direct talks with the United States. 

Pyongyang has described the test of its “hydrogen bomb” as “a complete success”. If the North Korean claim is true, it is the first time that they have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. Its destructive power is significantly more than the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan in 1945. The seismic impact of the latest nuclear test conducted by the North recorded by the United States Geological Survey revealed that it was seven to eight times more powerful than the data recorded during the last nuclear test conducted by the country in September, 2016. North Korea has said that the nuclear test, the sixth it has conducted so far, has now given it the capability of loading a miniaturised hydrogen bomb in an intercontinental missile. The North has already successfully test launched intercontinental missiles twice this year.

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, was shown inspecting a miniaturised nuclear warhead that could be fitted into the cone of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Experts in the West are casting doubts about the claims. The same experts were also very skeptical of the North's claims of mastering ICBM and nuclear weapons technology, only to be proved wrong within a very short period of time. The North Korean leadership has apparently decided that a full fledged missile and nuclear deterrent is the only insurance against regime change.

All the “fire and brimstone” ultimatums from the Trump administration have been shrugged off by Pyongyang. Top American officials from intelligence agencies have been planting stories in the media that the Trump administration has  contingency military plans to make “a pre-emptive strike” against North Korea. Any strike against the North would lead to the immediate devastation of Seoul from counter strikes. The South's capital is where most of the country's population and wealth is concentrated. As Steve Bannon, a former key adviser of Trump and alt-right ideologue recently observed, Washington knows that it cannot realistically resort to the military option on North Korea.

The latest set of North Korean actions have further alarmed China, the country's biggest trading partner and till recently a close political ally. Pyongyang was particularly upset with China for supporting the passage of the latest UN Security Council sanctions in August, the toughest so far against North Korea. North Korea's exports have been cut by one-third as a result of the latest UN Security Council Resolution.

China has not been very happy with Pyongyang for some time. The latent tensions between the two sides have been further exacerbated after the emergence of the young Kim Jong-un as the leader of his country. The North Korean leadership historically has had a tendency to take important decisions unilaterally. The first president of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il, launched a war for Korean reunification in 1951 without consulting neighbouring China. The war that followed led to the division of the country on a long term basis. It was only the intervention of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that helped the North Korean army avoid complete defeat at the hands of the United States. The PLA intervened when the American forces threatened to cross into China. The US air force had bombed the North into rubble using more ammunition than it had used in the Asia Pacific region during Second World War. Every family in Korea has lost a family member in the Korean War.

Similarly, the North has been pursuing its missile and nuclear deterrent policy without keeping Beijing in the loop. The leadership of the Workers Party in Pyongyang knows that the last thing Beijing wants is the precipitate collapse of the North Korean State and the advance of the United States to China's borders. A nuclear or even a conventional war in the region is also an unthinkable scenario for the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. As recent events have shown, Beijing has very little leverage over Pyongyang. The more sanctions North Korea is subjected to, the more defiant it has become. The Trump administration is aware of China's limitations but it is seeking to use the Korea crisis to wrest more concessions from Beijing on the economic front.

For the time being, the leadership of the Hermit Kingdom prefers to remain in isolation than make unilateral concession to the United States. As most observers of the region now agree, there is a method in the seeming madness emanating from Pyongyang. North Korea's bluster now backed up by facts on the ground now leaves Washington with no other option but to talk with its new nuclear adversary on the block. India and Pakistan were eventually recognised as de facto “nuclear powers” by the West, despite being non signatories of the NPT. Saner voices in the Trump administration like the secretary of state, John Tillerson, have indicated that eventual talks with the North have not been ruled out despite the recent assertions by his commander in chief to the contrary.

Meanwhile, the ongoing tensions in the Korean peninsula have provided the pretext for the further militarisation of the region. The Trump administration has asked an additional $54 billion for the American military, a ten per cent increase in the military's budget. The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe has been using the Korean crisis to change the character of the Japanese defense forces and change the Pacifist constitution in the country. Japan along with South Korea have also decided to spend much more on their defense budgets, citing the “North Korean threat”. Tokyo and Seoul have already sent their shopping lists for more sophisticated weaponry from the United States, which is good news for the America's thriving arms industry. More worrying for Washington is the growing chorus among right wing circles in Japan and South Korea for acquiring nuclear deterrents of their own. It is well known that both Japan and South Korea have made tremendous advances in the field of nuclear technology and can produce nuclear weapons at short notice. In fact, the South Koreans had embarked on a secret mission to produce nuclear weapons of their own in the 1990's. It was the Americans who had nipped that project before it come to fruition.

Newsletter category: