Since the beginning of 2013 reports from the Korean Peninsula have been disturbing and contradictory.
On the one hand, tensions continue to escalate as Pyongyang threatens to raze Seoul to the ground. This is the most severe situation since the 1968 Korean crisis, when the DPRK captured the US Navy spy ship Pueblo. Pyongyang’s suggestion that foreign diplomats be evacuated from North Korea in consideration of their safety, made on 5 April, is unprecedented.
On the other hand, on 31 March the Workers’ Party of Korea adopted a policy of economic development, to run in parallel with further build-up of the country’s nuclear forces, and the Supreme People’s Assembly re-appointed former prime minister Pak Pong-ju to head the cabinet. Pak is known as a supporter of economic reforms.
These developments suggest that, rather than unleashing an all-out war, Pyongyang is in fact keen to develop its economy. Of no less importance is the fact that, for the time being, people in both Koreas continue to live their normal daily lives.
Analysis of the current Korean escalation must focus on two major recent events: North Korea’s announcement on 8 March that it was invalidating the 1953 armistice and all associated agreements with South Korea, and its announcement that it had cut military hotlines with Seoul and Washington.
But the international media have been concentrating on Pyongyang’s increasingly belligerent statements — that an order had already been issued to deliver nuclear strikes against US military bases in different regions of the world, that North Korea is now at war with South Korea, and so on. While these statements are sensational, if we discard emotions and properly scrutinise what North Korea is saying there is less call for alarm.
First, just as was the case with similar statements made by Pyongyang in the past, the fresh threats clearly state that any military action would be entirely reciprocal, only to be resorted to if the country was subjected to outside aggression. These public statements should be seen as a strong warning to North Korea’s opponents not to cross the ‘final line’. But North Korea is most likely harbouring no plans for a pre-emptive strike on its potential adversaries.
Second, it is not just the North that is pushing the two Koreas close to the brink of open warfare. The role of all the parties involved and their contribution to the present standoff needs to be assessed. The United States and South Korea are adding fuel to the fire with just as much enthusiasm as the North. In fact, although so far North Korea has limited itself to rhetoric (admittedly it is fairly belligerent), its opponents have taken actual steps toward real conflict. Washington’s decision to deploy interceptors in Alaska as a measure against a possible North Korean missile attack is one such step. Another is the use of nuclear-capable B-52 strategic bombers (for the first time in many years) and a B-2 stealth bomber close to North Korea’s border in the ongoing joint US–South Korean exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.
These exercises include practice bomb runs to imitate nuclear strikes against North Korea. The United States and South Korea have not limited themselves to rhetoric; they are undertaking actual military activities aimed, among other things, at intimidating and demoralising their opponent. Any country would view such behaviour as an act of provocation and react correspondingly. It is important to realise the North Koreans have nowhere to retreat. Displaying any sign of weakness will have a devastating effect. There must be no doubt the DPRK will fight to the end using all the means at its disposal in case an attack is launched.
Washington and Seoul recently announced plans for another exercise, the third in two months. It will involve the two countries’ marine troops and last the best part of April. The location is a disputed sector of the Yellow Sea on the border between the two Koreas, roughly in the area where North Korean artillery bombarded South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 — in an exchange of fire during a South Korean military exercise.
North Korea is not the only country watching these exercises with apprehension. Recent Chinese moves to increase its military presence along the border with North Korea may be its response to the US–ROK military activity. It should not be forgotten that the military alliance treaty between China and North Korea remains in force.
All parties must exercise maximum restraint. They can’t be sure of the consequences in a game where perception can matter more than reality.
Alexander Vorontsov is Head of the Department for Korean and Mongolian Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.
This article was first published here on Russia Beyond the Headlines.