Is a Korean Armageddon looming? Viewed from afar, the combination of circumstances may appear terrifying.
Two states in heated confrontation on a flashpoint peninsula. Millions of personnel facing off over a high-tension, ultra-militarized frontier. A nuclear-armed dictatorship facing internal problems that demand the generation of external tensions. The erosion of conflict de-escalation agreements.
Meanwhile, America is distracted and China is probing weaknesses in places as far apart as the China-India border, the South China Sea and Australia.
And certainly, the verbiage flying in barrages over the DMZ reads like an alarm call. Is it time to hit the panic button?
In fact, North Korea’s current portfolio of threats against the South are, viewed in historical context, minor, while its current bluster masks economic weakness and diplomatic failures.
And with Seoul finally adopting a firm stance against Pyongyang’s provocations, the risk of a real, live conflict breaking out is more likely to recede than advance.
North unleashes, South responds
This month, North Korea has held rallies and issued enraged editorials by fast-rising party star Kim Yo Jong, sister of leader Kim Jong Un. Kim is maintaining a low profile for reasons unknown, perhaps due to his state of health, or perhaps so he can re-surface subsequently as a dove while his sister plays the hawk.
Blaming Seoul for allowing activists to float propaganda balloons over its border, Pyongyang cut all cross-DMZ communications links last week. Yesterday it went kinetic, blowing up the only inter-Korean liaison office that has existed since the end of the Korean War.
Before yesterday, Seoul tried to be conciliatory. It vowed to halt the balloon flights, and after the North slashed communications, President Moon Jae-in delivered a speech in which he suggested that the two Koreas should sort out their problems “on their own,” due to the frozen state of Pyongyang –Washington relations.
But since the destruction of the Kaesong office, Seoul has removed its kid gloves and exposed its knuckles.
Yesterday, Moon’s National Security Council said, “If the North tries to make this situation worse, we will take strong action. This is a serious warning.”
This morning, North Korea upped the ante once again, releasing spectacular photos of the destruction of the liaison office and a state-media assault by Kim Yo Jong on Moon. She slammed his speech for its “shameless sophistry” and “pro-US flunkeyism” and shot down an offer by the South to dispatch a special envoy to calm rising tensions.
South Korea’s presidential office responded with strong words. “We won’t tolerate any more of North Korea’s indiscreet rhetoric and acts,” said presidential press secretary Yoon Do-han, who characterized Kim’s remarks as senseless and rude and demanded “basic etiquette.”
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff also raised their voice.
Moon has held three strikingly chummy summits with his North Korean opposite number – no other South Korean president has held more than one and hoped to be peacemaker, engaging North Korea economically and politically.
However, his hands are tied.
As North Korea has recognized, Moon has chosen to stay true to his alliance with the United States, an alliance which has prevented him from establishing the economic ties with the North he so cherishes.
His position, despite the hysteria of hard right-wingers in Seoul and Washington who label Moon a communist or a traitor, is clear.
He has not broken international sanctions on North Korea. Nor has he downgraded his security alliance with Washington – even at a time when the latter is demanding a reported five-fold increase in Seoul’s payments to support US troops in South Korea.
And he has stuck with Washington at a time when Beijing’s authoritarian-but-stable star is rising while that of the US is nose-diving.
The “Arsenal of Democracy” is suffering a humiliating inability to contain Covid-19, a socio-political disintegration over policing/race issues and the highest numbers of unemployed in living history.
Even though the two Koreas remain officially at war – the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease-fire not a peace treaty, and Seoul refused even to sign that – the peace has largely held since the guns fell silent.
Granted there have been deadly flare ups.
US aircraft have been shot down and a small US warship seized. Koreans have battled Koreans during commando incursions, presidential assassination attempts, naval clashes in the Yellow Sea, even artillery exchanges over a South Korean island off North Korea’s coast.
Even so, all these incidents – and many more too numerous to mention – were contained.
None accelerated into the much-feared “spiral of escalation” phase. That is the truly diabolical risk, which could see an all-out shooting war descend, once again, upon the divided peninsula.
In that worst-case scenario, global financial markets would face devastation, millions of Koreans could die, and Beijing and Washington could once against find themselves at war.
But none of this looks likely.
Cross-border communications links have been cut and reconnected before. The Joint Liaison office has only functioned since 2018, and was – despite its promise – by no means a critical channel.
Moreover, the threats that North Korea is making at present hardly presage the apocalypse. Viewed in broad context, they look minor and hint more at weakness than strength.
Moving troops into an abandoned South Korean industrial park and a tourism zone – both of which are on North Korean soil and have have been abandoned by the South since, respectively, 2016 and 2008 – hardly represent a casus belli.
The rebuilding of a handful of small “guard posts” inside the DMZ that had been demolished as a result of a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement, is of, at most, sergeant-level tactical consequence.
Re-arming North Korean troops who were stripped of their small arms in a largely symbolic gesture in Panmunjom, is merely a return to the norm. Ditto any resumption of military exercises near the DMZ.
The likeliest risk of bloodshed exists in the Yellow Sea, where a series of clashes took place in the late 1990s and 2000s.
But even there, a stern show of force may be enough to avoid combat, for North Korea cannot risk a major clash with the South Korean-US alliance.
Threats vs massive force
North Korea’s leaders have long proved themselves brilliant players of strategic poker. They know how far they can push the risk envelope.
North Korean forces have proven highly effective at deniable attacks – such as terrorist bombings of South Korean flights and the sinking of a South Korean navy corvette by mini-submarine, a 2010 attack that Pyongyang still refuses to admit.
In plain sight, North Korean forces have also been highly effective at pinprick attacks – military operations that are suddenly conducted and suddenly de-escalated, such as patrol boat attacks and artillery strikes.
However, experience shows that in times of severe tension, North Korean forces – which cannot challenge the South Korea-US alliance in major, protracted operations – have backed down when faced with large-scale, determined opposition.
After murdering two American soldiers at the truce village of Panmunjom in 1973, North Korean forces stood down when the US marshalled a carrier task force off the coast, deployed a vast range of air assets and supported aggressive South Korean special forces, who entered the village en masse.
In 2015, after two South Korean soldiers were maimed in a carefully laid land-mine ambush in the DMZ, and following a murky “exchange of fire” over the border, hawkish South Korean officials and generals demanded negotiations. With the South Korean military on alert and ready to fight, North Korea agreed to the meeting and ceased provocations.
In the years since 2015, North Korea has conducted tactical and strategic weapons tests, and launched cyberattacks against both South Korea and a range of global targets. However, it has refrained from carrying out military operations against South Korean targets.
Most indications are that a burst of automatic fire from the North that hit a South Korean position on May 3 was a misfire.
As a then-young conscript in his country’s special forces, Moon Jae-in took part in Operation Paul Bunyan, the Panmunjom operation.
It is tragic to see his dreams of inter-Korean engagement and amity – dreams rich in possibility – crash. But if he learned a lesson in deterrence from those tense moments in 1973, then his country is more, not less, secure.