[The war of words has already started. North Korea has declared the Armistice Agreement inoperative, has cut off the hot line at exactly the time hot lines are most needed to prevent an inadvertent slide into accidental hot wars. Large military exercizes are currently being conducted on both sides of the DMZ. How will South Korea and/or the USA respond to an intended or unintended skirmish around disputed border islands at the sensitive Northern Limit Line, as happened in Yeonpyeong in 1999, 2002 and 2010? A “kinetic” response has been threatened by all three parties. Could this devolve into a tit-for-tat escalation towards an all-out war? As he is wont to do, Chris Nelson has been following developments from an American perspective in the Nelson Report. With his permission, we reprint sections of the 11 March 2013 edition. –CanKor]
So the 11th arrived and as the annual US-S. Korea joint military exercises continue, the DPRK seems to be keeping to its “schedule” of doing things to rachet-up tensions, but not (yet) actually shoot anything or anybody. However, that, we can authoritatively report, is seen by both US and S. Korean involved experts as likely not a question of “if”, but “when/what”.
Speculation…nothing on this can be called “informed”…but speculation by folks whose responsibility it is to try and predict: many expect some kind of kinetic action near or along the Northern Limits Line, rather than against Seoul or a military base…perhaps carried out in a way which cannot be immediately ascribed to direct DPRK aggression. (See discussion, below.)
The thinking behind that includes Pyongyang seeking to confuse ROK (and US) decision-makers on the critical “retaliation” question, especially given Pres. Park’s firm warnings that not only will she authorize a military response to a kinetic attack, but that a pre-emptive ROK attack cannot be ruled out, under certain circumstances.
(In other words, might the ROK “intel read” be such that Pres. Park dare not “accept” being hit first?)
And there’s this: anxieties raised by N. Korea’s continued success in nuclear weapons development has stimulated S. Korean politicians and commentators to once again “think out loud” about the ROK seeking its own nuclear weapons deterrent…something the Carter Administration firmly squelched back in the late 1970’s.
In addition to the Administration’s “campaign” to reassure allies and adversaries that the budget fiasco won’t be allowed to undermine alliance performance…National Security Advisor Tom Donilon addressed the implications of either Seoul (or Tokyo) “going nuclear” in his Asia Society speech today, as noted by a Loyal Reader present:
“He said that it’s understandable that the South Korean public would want nuclear weapons given the history of provocations, but that the alliance provides a strong defense against any action and has the assets in place and determination to ensure that ROK’s defense is provided for. And there’s long-term extended deterrence. He was also pressed on saying that North Korean transfer of nuclear material would compel a US response, and he answered that the US would hold the North Koreans responsible.”
ABOUT NORTH KOREA…INTENTIONS AND RISKS…
On “reading” the Norks, we are constantly reminded that so much of what we see and hear out of Pyongyang is a passion play script, or maybe internal dog whistle signals, the real meanings of which most of us can glimpse but dimly. We assume you saw the film of Boy Marshal and the gaggle of weeping, arms-raised military plunging into the surf last week? [See conclusion of this video. –CanKor]
It caused much hilarity back here. Personally, Your Editor thought it was one of the saddest things he’s ever seen. Commented to a friend: “I don’t think I ever felt more sorry for NK people than from watching it.”
GREG CLARK, in Tokyo, continues his excellent parsing of how Pyongyang sees it:
[The US invasion of ] Iraq (strongly mentioned by Kim Jong Il to anyone who would listen), must make NK aware of the danger of US preemptive attack now that it is clearly embarked on developing a tactical weapon. Inevitably the North Koreans will see recent US moves to further tighten sanction screws, plus the re-emergence of human rights issues, as setting the scene to justify an Iraq-style preemptive attack, and this time with much more WMD and human rights justification than over Iraq.
In this situation NK has no choice but to bluster – to try to show that it is ready and willing to retaliate the moment anyone moves against it. The situation is very similar to the Chinese bluster pre-1964 when they too faced a threat of US preemptive nuclear attack (they had already seen three threats earlier – 1953, 54, and 58). You have to show you are not afraid – in this case by Mao saying China could lose 300 million and still fight back.
That NK cancellation of the 1953 armistice agreement has part of the same pattern. Many seem to think it is just part of the usual NK bluster. But it has real implications in showing NK would and could retaliate immediately it suffered that feared preemptive attack.
The surprising hardening of the Chinese position also has to be seen in this context. It is not just Beijing getting tired of its fractious friend; the Chinese got used to him a long time ago. It is Beijing realising there is now a real risk of the peninsula being thrown into chaos by a preemptive attack followed by a strong NK response. To stop that it has to try to do whatever it can.
An involved US Loyal Reader (…our underlining):
There is a strong desire to draw historical comparisons and precedent in order to divine what is going on in North Korea and what North Korea will do next. We should pause to note that Kim Jong-un is not his father. Due to the opacity of the North Korean regime we are reduced to parsing every statement and movement of senior leadership figures in an attempt to distill intent. Further, intent can change rapidly. And then there is the very scary prospect for miscalculation and escalation regardless of who initially intended what. History, precedent and intent can only carry us so far in our assessments of North Korea.
Military readiness is critical. US and South Korean forces maintain a high level of readiness, all the more so on the eve of a major exercise. So immediately attributable North Korean provocations conducted in the next couple of weeks carry additional risks for the North Koreans in terms of failure and tactical defeat … And more risk to all of us due to the increased potential of escalation that comes with South Korea’s determination to respond to provocations with overwhelming force.
But honestly, any South Korean response comes with increased potential for escalation and miscalculation. I am not arguing that South Korea should not respond immediately to lethal provocations that are instantly attributable to North Korea. But it is through a cycle of response // counter-response // and escalation that I believe we are most likely to end up in a large scale conflict, not through a deliberate attempt by North Korea to initiate a general war.
It is unwise for military professionals to dismiss rhetoric and threats from North Korea considering their military capability and force posture. All the more so considering the challenges associated with understanding the intent of any nation’s leadership, let alone that of the Kim regime. So neither the US or South Korea dismiss rhetoric or threats, but they should place them in the context of what is learned about North Korea through intelligence. North Korean statements and leadership activities are not sufficient indicators to drive national security decision making and military actions.
We cannot afford to whip ourselves into a frenzy based on harsh rhetoric and visits to military units. North Korean provocations are as likely to be carried out along the lines of the Cheonan as they are along the lines of YP do. That is to say, I believe that North Korea is likely to opt for provocations that are lethal but not immediately attributable. North Korea may be able to get the credit without having to accept the responsibility. Even if it is assigned responsibility, lethal responses are difficult to carry out after the passage of time required to conduct an investigation and build legitimacy.
We also have to accept that while we can deter general war, deterring provocations is another matter. The US and South Korea are working concertedly to ensure that they are prepared to respond to provocations and manage escalation. And this is the great unknown and area of most substantial risk – a cycle of provocation // response // counter-response that leads to a large-scale conflict.
Much depends on readiness, as well as North Korea’s decision making. The US and South Korea work hard on readiness, including exercises to improve decision making. As is the case with militaries the world over – they plan and plan and plan. Yet they will still get it wrong, but when it should be a matter of degrees and with a robust capability to recover.
That leads us back to North Korea’s decision making which we may be able shape but not control. I do believe that the regime operates rationally – though with parameters and logic distinct from that to which we are accustomed. That is the good news. The bad news is that logical people make mistakes and we are dealing with a leader that is young and inexperienced. So risk and tension will endure, but not because of harsh statements of the military tourism of North Korea’s senior leaders.
I wish I could be more specific or re-assuring regarding what North Korea may be up to. But the rhetoric of the past week simply brings into stark relief the situation as it currently exists. While the US and South Korea maintain a high level of readiness and may be able to manage escalation, the US and South Korea are only one side of this equation. We are one provocation or miscalculation away from a crisis or war. We allow ourselves to be lured into a false sense of confidence regarding stability or complacency at our peril.
An involved Korean Loyal Reader…strikingly similar analysis…
“I’ve also been worrying about the present circumstances and I do not deny the concerns from you and your Loyal Readers that the tension is mounting in Korean peninsula because North Korea has been ratcheting-up the tension using bellicose rhetoric, and South Korean responses in a concrete way. However, it remains less likely that a all-out war would be the result.
As you know, “Key Resolve”, the annual defense oriented joint exercise by US-ROK forces, is now on the way so North Korea cannot rashly provoke during them. Also, in a message by President Park to North Korea today, she gave a strict warning to North Korea while also suggesting its time to start to build up confidence(‘trustpolitik’) between two countries.
I agree North Korea chooses bellicose rhetoric such as nullifying the 1953 armistice because they are afraid of attack from Korea-US. As you know, Korea-US will not launch a preemptive attack unless North Korea provokes a war. But there is a real possibility that Kim Jung Un may provoke a war by miscalculation, but it can be restrained by Korea-US’s strong willingness to retaliate.
Therefore, now is the time to put an effort to create the atmosphere to pressure North Korea to prevent its provocative action, not to create an air of anxiety. The bottom line : Do not underestimate, but we should not overestimate. Anxiety cannot prevent ‘provocation’.”