North Korea's general reconnaissance bureau head Kim Yong-chol speaks during a briefing for diplomats in Pyongyang. Kim is due to attend the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters
North Korea's general reconnaissance bureau head Kim Yong-chol speaks during a briefing for diplomats in Pyongyang. Kim is due to attend the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters

With the “Peace Olympics” in South Korea drawing to a close and the season for military drills in the region fast approaching, Asia Times surveys the key issues hanging over the Korean peninsula in the weeks and months ahead.

1. Why are the 2018 Winter Olympics so critical, in political terms?

They have offered a breathing space amid unprecedentedly high peninsular tensions. Following a furious and very personal war of words between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile in November 2017. It had the range to reach all of the United States. Analysts are divided over how close North Korea is to possessing a full nuclear deterrent – questions hang, particularly, over its re-entry vehicles and targeting systems – but there is now a clear and present danger to the continental US. This changes the game for the Seoul-Washington alliance. Since the Korean War wound up in 1953, the alliance has been designed to defend South Korea against North Korea. Now, the US is also in North Korea’s crosshairs. Accordingly, the Trump administration has made the North Korea crisis the centerpiece of its foreign policy.

2. What does South Korean President Moon Jae-in want?

Since taking power in May 2017, the liberal Moon has consistently held out for dialogue with North Korea. His wishes were answered in January when North Korea announced that it would come to the Games. Moon wants to use the contacts and goodwill established during the Olympics to provide a springboard for post-Games talks to reduce tensions. Moon’s argument has been persuasive, with US President Donald Trump following his lead and agreeing to halt military exercises during the Games.

3. What does North Korean leader Kim Jong-un want?

Given the opacity surrounding North Korean governance, we cannot say for sure. But it is widely believed he wants the following:

  • Relief from global sanctions in the near-term
  • The halting of spring allied military drills in the mid-term
  • To leverage Seoul away from Washington in the long-term. He may also want a peace treaty with the US, and the establishment of diplomatic ties

4. What does US President Donald Trump want?

North Korean denuclearization. The question is how to achieve it. Thus far, largely diplomatic options have been exercised, and Trump has said he would be willing to talk to Kim personally. However, there is increasing talk in Washington of some kind of pre-emptive strike against North Korean facilities, designed to degrade key links in its nuclear and missile manufacturing chains, and against certain military assets, such as missile launch sites, mobile launchers and command and control nets.

5. How dangerous is the Trump administration?

Trump himself appears more politically flexible than his predecessors in the White House. He could order military action – or he could sit down and build a personal relationship with Kim. Neither Bush nor Obama went to either extreme. So the risk outlook is higher – but so is the chance of a solution.

6. What have the optics been like during the Games?

In terms of North-US relations, dire. The North Koreans declined to meet US Vice President Mike Pence, reportedly after he criticized their human rights record and announced new sanctions. In terms of North-South relations, very good. The dispatch by Pyongyang of Kim Yo-jong, sister of the leader, was well received. She has extended an invitation to Moon to visit her brother. 

7. What happens next?

Ivanka Trump and Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, are both scheduled to attend the Olympic closing ceremony on February 25. Pyongyang’s decision to send Kim, a former general in charge of espionage and special force assets who is held to be responsible for deadly attacks on the South in 2010, has shocked the South. Some see it as a slap in the face; others see it as a move to sow division within South Korea. However, Kim is a serious player, and may be the ideal figure to discuss military issues.

8. Will Moon meet Kim?

It looks likely. However, Kim’s offer puts Moon in a ticklish position. He cannot simply meet Kim for a photo opp, or to discuss, say, economic exchange. To satisfy Washington, and other members of the global community, he needs some commitment from Kim that substantive issues will be discussed. With Pyongyang thus far refusing to discuss denuclearization, the shared ground looks narrow.

9. What is the timeline?

  • Winter Olympics end on February 25
  • Winter Paralympics start on March  9
  • Winter Paralympics end on March 18
  • Assuming there is no diplomatic breakthrough, allied military drills will begin any time between March 18 and early April.

It is currently unclear whether the drills will begin, or what assets will be deployed. These questions are likely under debate as both Seoul and Washington read signals from Pyongyang. However, both capitals have indicated their firm intention to run the drills after the Paralympics conclude.

10. Could the drills be halted or scaled down?

Yes. The Clinton administration canceled spring exercises while negotiating with North Korea. Delays and scale-backs are possible inducements Seoul and Washington can offer Pyongyang.

 11. What do the annual drills consist of?

‘Key Resolve’ is a computerized command post exercise. ‘Foal Eagle’ is an actual field training exercise. These drills have customarily taken place at different times, from late February up to late April. After that, ‘Ulchi Freedom Guardian,’ the world’s largest command post exercise, usually takes place in late summer. Pundits will eye not only the timing but which assets the United States chooses to deploy to the region, and to the drills themselves. The drills can engage as many as 300,000 South Korean troops and 17,000 US troops, who rotate in to augment the 28,500 GIs stationed on the peninsula. In recent years, small allied contingents from Australia and the UK have also joined the exercises.

 12. Why is North Korea so irked by the drills?

It claims the drills are plans for an invasion of their state, particularly as the exercises include maneuvers by marine landing and air mobile forces – assets the North Koreans would find difficult to counter. Moreover, if the US deploys assets such as carrier battle groups, nuclear submarines and tier-1 special forces to the operational area, the necessary assets would be in place for a real strike, rather than simply a drill, if the US president so ordered.

13. Are the drills defensive in nature, as South Korea and the US claim?

Not entirely. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, which oversees the drills every year and files a report to the UN Security Council, says that certain aspects in the past have not been defensive. Moreover, in recent years, the drills have reportedly included practice “decapitation strikes” against the North Korean leadership.

 14. Should the world be concerned?

Yes. Capital markets have proven remarkably resilient against North Korean provocations, but even a limited or surgical US strike on North Korea could give a massive jolt to regional and global markets.

15. Would North Korea retaliate – such as with an artillery strike on Seoul?

Possibly not: North Korea’s modus operandi since the late 1960s has been very fast attacks and very fast withdrawals. In that sense, it is a de-escalator, not an escalator. Moreover, the artillery threat to Seoul has been vastly overstated by media. In fact, North Korea’s conventional forces, while extensive, are inferior in training, command and control, equipment and technological prowess to either South Korean or US forces. Moreover, Pyongyang almost certainly does not want to get drawn into a spiral of escalation which it cannot control and which could lead to the destruction of the regime. 

16. So a US strike is not risk-free?

Absolutely not. While North Korea’s conventional capabilities have been degraded due to the state of its economy, Pyongyang’s asymmetric forces are formidable. Deniable ‘black’ operations – such as terrorist attacks in South Korea, and possibly further afield – are one counter option the North could employ. On the diplomatic front, Moon has been adamant there can be no kinetic solution to North Korea. If the United States attacked North Korea unilaterally – even using offshore, rather than South Korea-based assets – there would be a crisis in the alliance. And if there was an exchange of fire and the escalation accelerated, there is the nightmare possibility that a floundering Pyongyang could order a nuclear strike.

 17. How high is Korea risk at present?

Significant. Currently, most analysts see the probability of a unilateral US strike as low – sub-20%. Even so,  last year’s peninsular tensions were arguably higher than at any times since the height of the Asian Cold War in 1968 – the year North Korea launched commando attacks on the South and seized a US spy ship, and the Tet Offensive got underway in South Vietnam.

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