Saturday, 30 March 2013

American bomber diplomacy and North Korean rhetoric

The latest game of brinksmanship on the North Korean peninsula could be pushing both sides closer to the edge than they wish.

In a probably unwise move, two nuclear-capable United States Air Force B-2 stealth bombers flew over South Korea on March 28. The dispatch of the American aircraft, each capable of carrying 16 nuclear weapons, is likely responding to the increased volumes of violent rhetoric from Pyongyang over the past few weeks which culminated in North Korea belligerently cutting off military phone hotlines to the South.

The U.S. military called the B-2 flights “deterrence missions”. Their purpose was to psychologically display American power projection capabilities as being able to fly anywhere at any time and drop whatever bombs they wish. If this message is being read clearly by the North Korean regime, its increased activity near known missile sites seems to suggest otherwise.

A US B-2 stealth bomber (right) flies over a U.S. air base
in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul. - Yonhap via AFP
The American bombers were participating in a joint military exercise involving South Korea and the United States. Flying 10,600 kilometres over the wide Pacific Ocean the U.S. firmly stood up to North Korean belligerency reassuring Seoul of Washington’s commitment to South Korean independence. As part of the exercise, the two bombers dropped dummy munitions about 80 kilometres from the Demilitarised Zone before flying back to the United States mainland in Missouri. The mission was the first of its kind for one of the world’s most powerful weapons.

However, the intended effect of defusing tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul could backfire on Washington.

There are already reports of North Korea placing missile units on standby to attack U.S. bases in South Korea and the Pacific. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un approved the manoeuvre at an overnight meeting of top generals, adding that: “the time has come to settle accounts with U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation”.

While the tea leaves in Pyongyang are not very simple to interpret, their threats are being taken seriously. North Korea does possess short-range Scud missiles capable of hitting South Korea, but its longer-range missiles which could hit U.S. Pacific bases and were recently on display placing crude satellites into temporary orbit, are still mostly untested. 

And looking back to deadly examples of only a few years ago, North Korea not only possesses the capability, but clearly has the political and military will to escalate these tensions into explosive reality.
In early 2010 a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, similar the vessels which visited Auckland at the end of last year, was attacked by a North Korean mini submarine. The strike sunk the warship killing 46 South Korean sailors.

A nearby island called Yeonpyeong was shelled around the same time as the warship was torpedoed, killing four other South Koreans. In the event of similar aggressive movements from the North in the near future, Seoul has issued warnings to Pyongyang that it will respond “exponentially” to any military provocations. This unusual and particularly ferocious South Korean reaction to the North’s recent threats has the potential to quickly escalate tensions into a hot war now that both sides show a dangerous willingness to launch military strikes.

It is hard to see how the American bomber flight was meant to calm the situation on the Korean peninsula. Increased activity around missile sites on the Northern side of the border suggests Pyongyang reads the mission as a vindication of their assertion that the United States is the aggressor.

Undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - AP
Large-scale demonstrations in Pyongyang, while in all likelihood entirely contrived by the totalitarian state, do nevertheless point to Kim Jong Un’s popularity at home. Also important are the North’s recent bout of military exercises. These reveal the continued close connection between the armed forces and Kim Jong Un. Just how much control the young leader of the North Korean state has over his generals is mostly unknown.

In response to all this, Chinese authorities on March 29 called for joint efforts to be made to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula. The U.S. B-2 mission would have rattled the Chinese also. But Beijing has little real influence over the actions of its erstwhile ally in Pyongyang. In the past China has been able to lean diplomatically on Pyongyang when tensions became too great. In doing so Beijing showed to the world its supposed political centrality in concluding the dangerous situation. The message to Washington is that it has the ability to step in at any time to escalate or defuse tensions as it sees fit.  

Yet North Korea appears to run on its own steam for much of the time. If the situation does rise into a hot war, and there is no good reason to discount this disastrous scenario just yet, China would very likely step in. Although a Chinese intervention in a Korean war would probably not be entered into on behalf of the North Koreans.

It has been theorised instead that Chinese forces would probably move to occupy the North Korean peninsula on behalf of the United Nations. After all, it is the North Korean protection buffer between the westernised state of South Korea and the thousands of U.S. troops stationed near Seoul that China most benefits from by supporting Kim Jong Un’s regime.

If the North Korean regime appears to be in jeopardy, and this important buffer on the brink of closing, Beijing would likely use its considerable strength to intervene and prevent the occupation of North Korea by U.S. forces, which would bring American troops that much closer to mainland China.

With such dangerous actions from all sides, the present fear remains of a hot war starting once more between North and South Korea. And with military technology far more advanced and deadly than in 1950, the first hours and days of such a conflict will be unpredictable and probably extremely violent. The potential for conflict is certainly hanging in the air however Pyongyang’s rhetoric will probably decrease in the near future, just as it always has. Once the hermetic regime gets the aid or talks it is likely playing for, it will step back, this much is certain.

Getting to this point without a military escalation will be the trick, and this outcome is less certain. Kim Jong Un is showing at least some centralised control over his armed forces, a conclusion not necessarily decided following his father’s demise. Whether the North Korean generals are all singing from the same song sheet is unknown. A jumpy North Korean missile operator or a hot-headed general on either side could precipitate a return to a nasty war on the Korean Peninsula.

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