North Korea: A Descent into War

“Since taking office in 2011, Mr. Kim has striven to prove himself a worthy ‘military first’ successor… Some analysts fear that his frequent executions of top officials might make top generals more prone to attempt armed provocations to prove their loyalty and to survive his regime” – Cho Sang-Hun, New York Times

A North Korean missile unit takes part in a military parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Army in Pyongyang in this picture taken April 25, 2007. REUTERS/Korea News Service (NORTH KOREA) JAPAN OUT
A North Korean missile unit takes part in a military parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army in Pyongyang. April 25, 2007. REUTERS/Korea News Service

WAR is a slow burn on the Korean peninsula. Having never officially ended, both North and South Korea exist in a state of glacial conflict, and though the weapons and strategies don’t always involve guns and bullets, both sides are playing for keeps.

Every year, the war of words and rhetoric reaches fever pitch around August. The month is significant as on the 15th, both North and South remember their independence following the fall of Japan after WWII. Bringing tensions to the fore, however, is the annual joint war-games involving the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK). This year, operation “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” was no different, involving 30,000 US soldiers alongside 50,000 of their Southern counterparts.

040326-F-0193C-020 Pohang Beach, Korea (Mar. 26, 2004) - A Republic of Korea Type 88 K1 Main Battle Tank drives off a U.S. Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) throughout a simulated amphibious attack on Pohang Beach, Korea, during Reception, Staging, Onward Movement, and Integration, and Foal Eagle 2004. The exercise is an annual U.S. and South Korea exercise tailored to evaluate command capabilities to receive U.S. Forces from outside Korea while teaching, coaching, and mentoring exercise participants. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen. (RELEASED)
Pohang Beach, Korea (Mar. 26, 2004) – A Republic of Korea Type 88 K1 Main Battle Tank drives off a U.S. Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) Photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen.

Currently, political tensions stand on a knifes edge. On August 4th two South Korean officers had their legs blown off by anti-personnel mines. Initial investigations found that they were the “wooden box” type constructed and employed by the North, and since the soldiers were wounded inside the South’s side of the Demilitarized-Zone (DMZ) the blame was levelled squarely on the Pyongyang’s Korean People’s Army (KPA).

In spite of blunt denials, the South’s reaction has been uncharacteristically hard-line. Promising harsh reprisal, South Korea resumed broadcasts of propaganda along the DMZ, infuriating Pyongyang. In a game of tit-for-tat, North Korea raised the bar when it launched two rockets at a broadcasting position on August 20. The South’s reply came in the form of 29 artillery shells in a move that shocked Pyongyang due to the ROK’s departure from its policy of “tension minimization”. Whilst the artillery exchange resulted in no casualties, it has tattered the already fraught relationship between the Koreas. This time, the South isn’t backing down and now, the North cannot risk looking weak. Both sides had arrived at an impasse that was threatening to escalate into a full-blown war once again.

The bitter rivalry between the two states bears the weight of a history that makes reconciliation an extremely difficult prospect. Since their split following the Korean War between 1950 to 1953, they have waged a low intensity war across many spheres beyond the battlefield. This latest episode has only renewed old tensions, but there is a bigger picture beyond the Korean peninsula. North and South are small players in a much bigger battle for strategic control of East Asia and the Pacific.

Two Nations of One people

South Korean soldiers patrol the DMZ
South Korean soldiers patrol the DMZ

The De-Militarized-Zone (DMZ) was established at the end of the Korean war in 1953 along the 38th northern parallel. Running along the “demarcation line” which marks the front line as it was at the end of the conflict, the DMZ is 4 kilometres wide and 250 kilometres long. It is the most heavily militarized border in the world, and whilst patrols are allowed inside of the DMZ,  the demarcation line itself is not allowed to be crossed. The end of the conflict has not been the end of the killing either, with more than 500 South Korean, 50 US, and 250 North Korean soldiers killed in the years since.

North-South ties have been at a virtual standstill since 2010 when inter-Korean relations last hit their rockiest. As the new head of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong Un set out to solidify his hold over the North by showing that he is a strong ruler. The new regime sought to emulate that of the recently deceased Kim Jong Ill by reinforcing the power of the military and engaging in confrontations with the ROK’s defence forces. The most controversial incident occurred when a torpedo attack sunk the South Korean Warship Cheonan, killing 43 crew members. This attack incited outrage but the ROK’s response was measured and ultimately light despite evidence of a North Korean sub in the area. Aggravating tensions further was the shelling of Yeonpyeong island within the South’s territory which killed two civilians. In spite of this further provocation, President Lee Myung-Bak ordered his forces to only respond if further attacks occurred. This episode has shaped the South’s current defence policy into being more proactive. Sick of the North committing attacks and receiving only economic sanctions in response, Seoul has changed to a policy of strong and immediate counter-attack.

Kim Jong Un waves during a military parade in Pyongyang
Kim Jong Un waves during a military parade in Pyongyang

Watchful giants

The region is a powder keg. With the rising power of China on one side, and the United States on the other, the divides between North and South go beyond simplistic ideological terms. The Korea’s still serve as a buffer between America’s interests and those of a China now flexing it’s military might in the East and South China Seas. Both sides have a vested interest in keeping North Korea as a functioning state if only to maintain the balance of power.

China’s relationship with the DPRK is a delicate balancing act of providing just enough resources and financial aid to keep the regime functioning but not enough to bolster its militaristic ambitions. Beijing acts as a middle man between the US and ROK when they wish to deal with the North, and is not afraid to flex its diplomatic weight against the Pyongyang’s military Junta. In 2010, Beijing made a commitment to help de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula and is widely seen as responsible for pressuring the country into halting its atomic program in 2014. What is uncertain is whether China would honour its military alliance should war break out. During the Korean War, it was China who flooded the peninsula with its soldiers to save the Pyongyang after its soldiers collapsed in the face of a fierce UN-led counter-attack. In the increasingly uncertain climate of South and East Asia, a rogue Korean state can no longer rely on it’s last ally. The greatest danger, however, is not that China would abandon its ally, but that it could instead capitalize upon a Korean conflict. American strategists worry that Beijing may seek in the near future seeking to face America not only on the peninsula but in Taiwan or in the South China Sea.

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Related:

China is increasingly asserting itself in the South China Sea

North Korea celebrates its relationship with China during the mass games in Pyongyang
North Korea celebrates its relationship with China during the mass games in Pyongyang

With its “pivot”, or “rebalancing”, to the Pacific, America is renewing its commitments to its allies and better position itself strategically against North Korea’s aggression. Unofficially, the United States is widely seen as addressing and attempting to contain China’s regional ambitions. South Korea maintains 639,000 battle ready troops with 2.9 million reserves backed by the permanent US armed forces of around 30,000. If North Korea were to collapse, China would face the unpalatable possibility of a reunified American ally right on its border. 

The ABRAHAM LINCOLN Battle Group along with ships from Australia, Chile, Japan, Canada, and Korea steam alongside one another on 18 June 2000 for a Battle Group Photo during RIMPAC 2000. Official U.S. Navy photo by: PH2 Gabriel Wilson
The ABRAHAM LINCOLN Battle Group along with ships from Australia, Chile, Japan, Canada, and Korea steam alongside one another on 18 June 2000 for a Battle Group Photo during RIMPAC 2000.
Official U.S. Navy photo by: PH2 Gabriel Wilson

No Second Chances

The DPRK fields a standing army of more than 1.1 million soldiers with 8.2 million reserves. With so many forces concentrated in such a small area the chances for miscalculation are extreme. For its part, Kim Jong Un’s regime resents it’s ties to China though not nearly as much as it does America. Officially the country practices “Juche”, a national policy of self-sufficiency. The necessity for continuing food, resource, and financial-aid from the rising super power is viewed internally as a secret shame. For Pyongyang’s elite, the hermit kingdom must privately act upon Beijing’s wishes lest they lose this last vital link to the world.

North and South Korean border guards face off in the Panmunjeom Peace village.
North and South Korean border guards face off in the Panmunjeom Peace village.

Currently, the world is faced with the problem of an ambitious Pyongyang under the leadership of a young ruler. The current status quo appears to be breaking and changing as a resilient South Korea has shown that it will no longer tolerate unchecked aggression. Beijing has, to its credit, played an important role as a diplomat for the isolated state, but as its own goals grow and it continues to challenge American supremacy the chances of miscalculation grow.

The ramifications for even a small conflict would leave half a million dead by the Pentagon’s estimates. It may draw in regional allies such as Australia and Japan, but more importantly, the super powers themselves. Any duel in the East Asia is guaranteed to be a messy affair. The challenge for contemporary governments is to manage Kim Jong Un towards a peaceful reintegration with the globe regardless of how remote a possibility this may be.

The USS Chung-Hoon maneuvers with the US Pacific 7th Fleet
The USS Chung-Hoon maneuvers with the US Pacific 7th Fleet

North Korea’s game of challenging the South then extracting aid from the West is no longer a model for the future. As of the 25th of August, Pyongyang was the first to blink in its latest stand-off with the South. The marathon negotiations to end the escalating military situation resulted in the North backing down from two deadlines it set to launch military action after the South promised “strong” retaliation. The Republic of Korea has now proven it will no longer allow itself to be extorted by the hermit kingdom. For Kim Jong Un this episode may prove to be a humiliating lesson and a private admission to the frailties of the Norths huge though weak and ill-equipped forces.

As North and South have resumed their cold war, China and America have quietly stood down. On Pyongyang’s northern border, the People’s Liberation Army withdrew tanks, artillery and troops it had been massing. American F-22 stealth fighters, B-2 bombers and nuclear submarines have also returned to bases in Guam and the Pacific. If and when these forces meet, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Related:

China and the United States face off in the turbulent South China Sea

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