Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Diplomacy-savvy North Korea ratchets tension further

The Korean peninsula remains on the boil this week with an uncharacteristic amount of rhetoric and dire warnings of imminent military attacks. All eyes are on the hermetic North Korea, which is exactly what Pyongyang wants.

Threats of war, and even war-like actions, are par for a North Korean course. This year the violent rhetoric is terser as the regime further ratchets up the apprehension on the peninsula, but could be short-lived.

Each year, the United States and South Korea conduct bilateral military exercises, always managing to rattle the political cages in the North.

South Korea And U.S. Army Hold "Key Resolve/Foal Eagle 2010"
Joint Exercise - Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images AsiaPac

The drills emphasise a United States military commitment to South Korean defence. Last week’s trans-Pacific flight mission of two B-2 Spirit bombers, briefly participating in the drills, indicate the strength and speed of the U.S. military.

Both Washington and Seoul know to expect some howls of protest from Pyongyang during the annual drills, but something else lurks behind the latest threats, spooking many experts.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, says she takes the North Korean threats “very seriously”. The new president added “there should be a strong response in initial combat without any political consideration if North Korea launches a provocation against the South”.

This defiant stance of the South Korean government is the added reason the tension between the Koreas could potential spill into a hot war. In the past, despite similar threats and even the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 by a North Korean submarine killing 46 crew members, it was Seoul which turned the other cheek and refused to retaliate.

Now, Ms Park is making it very clear her country will not absorb aggression from the North. According to reports, a plan of pre-emptive attacks is being drawn in the event the North should mobilise for a strike.

Whatever happens in the next few weeks, it is hard to see a return to the warfare of the 1950’s. Both the United States and South Korea field some of the world’s most advanced military might, on impressive display during Foal Eagle.

Whereas, in the isolated regime to the North, despite all its bluster about turning Seoul into a “sea of flames”, any conflagration would involve vintage military machinery.

But worryingly, North Korea publically included threats to the “imperialist forces” about using their precious nuclear weapons arsenal. Estimates on just how many of these terrible weapons exist in Pyongyang’s arsenal range from perhaps four to, at most, 12.  

Mentioning these weapons at such a tense time is probably bluster from the North Koreans as their ability to deliver those weapons to a target, and their functional reliability, is highly questionable.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stands next to
senior military leaders - David Guttenfelder/AP
U.S. officials monitoring the situation suggest there is no sign of significant military mobilisation in the North yet. Also suggesting the rhetoric is bluster, the Kaesong Industrial Park, a North-South joint venture facility just north of the demilitarized zone, remains operational as does the border crossing.

This particular border crossing, and its operational status, is a good bellwether to determine interstate relations on the Korean peninsula.

As the torrent of threats from the North Korean regime intensifies their leader Kim Jong Un may be backing himself into a corner. To maintain his relevance and control over his ever-restive military generals, he may soon feel a need to follow through on some of those threats.

That said, the current tensions on the peninsula are nothing out of the ordinary for the region. Every year the totalitarian regime issues well-timed threats, but stops short of conducting outright war. As usual, they are trying to convince the cancelled Six Party talks to resume and receive much-needed aid packages.

The question seems to be around how the South Koreans will react if the North decides to follow through on a few of their threats. Pyongyang might conduct isolated incidents, as it has in the past, but fall short of full attack remains the most likely scenario.

However, the tea leaves are very difficult to decipher in Pyongyang. Being the seemingly more rational of the two Koreas, Seoul will hopefully restrain itself in the event of such attacks, for fear of escalating isolated strikes into a larger conflict.

Both sides have been at this tense point many times in the past, and North Korea knows how to play this game very well. In a few months Pyongyang will probably have received the aid and talks it is presently “bargaining” for and the tensions will subside.

Ultimately, a diplomatically-savvy North Korea appears in complete control by appearing insane and belligerent when it chooses to and dialing up the tension when it suits them, making the rest of the world dance to its bizarre tune.

But the cycle of threats followed by promises of aid needs to be broken as each round of provocations become more serious. 

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