Korea on Brink of War

You are now living through very dangerous times. The North Korean attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island occurred a week ago, but tensions are still smouldering. The stakes don’t look good for peace and stability in East Asia, and this week will be as unpredictable as the last. The renewal of large-scale war on the Korean peninsula, which would almost automatically draw in China, the United States, Russia, Australia, and probably Japan, is a possibility not to discount lightly. Not only would the fallout from such a war be catastrophic—and probably radioactive—it would also be global. No matter who you are, or where you’re from, your fate is intertwined with that of a ridiculously misnamed Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in a remote corner of Asia. De-escalation is a strategic imperative which, seen objectively, should be in the interest of all sides. But will that suffice?

At Foreword we’ve been worried about the dangerous downward spiral in U.S.-China relations this year, which we argued had been taken hostage by the Korean great power trap, after American and Chinese war games came close to overlapping. Luckily, Providence stepped in to save the day—in the form of tropical storm Malou. Today, the weather is fine over South Korea, but cloudy with the chance of mild showers over the North. Are these the gathering clouds of war, or the raindrops of a teary dictator, regretful that his (or his son’s) actions have quite nearly brought the entire region to the brink of war? In the absence of North Korean sources able to confirm whether Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un can cry, regional powers are proceeding from the assumption that the former is more likely, and are planning accordingly. Things could go awry, extremely fast. Here are the key interested parties, their positions and interests.


-          North Korea. The North, experts seem to agree, is in the midst of a once-in-a-generation internal power transition, and the régime’s collapse is only stalled by China’s economic “life support” to the country. The natural conclusion to draw, therefore, is that the Yeonpyeong attack was a cynical and calculated gamble aimed at creating an external enemy image out of South Korea and the U.S., in order to strengthen the allegiance of the people and army to the communist kingdom’s leadership during this unstable period. Thus, this attack may only be a limited incident, rather than the resumption of the 1950-53 Korean War. Nevertheless, for all its attempted assassinations of South Korean heads of state, dealings in nuclear proliferation, and other stereotypically rogue-state-like activities (see Team America), attacking South Korean territory and civilians directly is an escalation short of a formal declaration of war. Seoul can’t be sure that this isn’t exactly what Pyongyang is planning (see International Relations 101: The Security Dilemma), so both sides are preparing for war, even if both genuinely hope to avoid it.


-          South Korea. For the South, this attack only added vinegar to wounds which hadn’t yet healed: namely the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean Cheonan corvette. If most of the international community bar China is to be believed, this particular attack was probably carried out by a North Korean submarine. Popular frustrations in the South are mounting, and this is inevitably toughening the government’s stance on North Korea. The South’s Defence Minister has already stepped down, and one poll suggests that 69 percent of South Koreans would support a “restrained military attack” against the North. The minor detail these pollsters under-appreciate is the fact that Seoul is located within the conventional artillery range of North Korea, which also possess crude atomic weapons. Although a “restrained military attack” could bank on the fact that Washington would swiftly intervene to decapitate the North Korean government, this attack could not possibly remain “restrained”, because it would drag China into a broader war. Hence, in order to remain both elected and alive, the South Korean government is caught between the need to respond harshly but avoid all-out war. That is precisely what President Lee Myung-bak is attempting in condemning the North’s attack against Yeonpyeong as a crime against humanity, and warning that “North Korea will pay the price in the event of further provocations,” whilst participating with the United States in renewed war games in the Yellow Sea.


-          The United States. The U.S. sent its George Washington aircraft carrier to the region as soon as the crisis broke out, and joint military manoeuvres with South Korea were ongoing on Sunday 28 and Monday 29 November. This deployment was planned before last week’s events, and China had warned the U.S. not to deploy in the Yellow Sea, as previously covered on Foreword. But the presence of the USS George Washington—some 1.6 squared kilometres and 101,000 tonnes of U.S. sovereign territory—within a missile’s launch from the North Korean coast is a clear display of gunboat diplomacy. The message in question, according to Tom Rogan, is two-fold: “First, that any major North Korean attack on the South will have severe military and political repercussions. Second, to China, that the Chinese must exert their considerable influence over North Korea or the US military posture in the region will harden substantially.” In Rogan’s words, this amounts to the U.S. clearly signalling to both China and North Korea: “do not test us.” Washington is calling Pyongyang’s bluff of black-mailing the South, and the international community, into conceding to the North every time they blow something up or develop nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration is under pressure, from its own domestic front, not to reward North Korea with a fresh round of international talks and diplomatic baby-sitting. Some Australian experts regard Pyongyang’s attack as precisely such a “grotesque tantrum” for American attention. Hence, the U.S. (like South Korea) was also caught between a rock and hard place, and had to decide which it had to push back against—the rock of North Korean intransigence and Chinese complicity, or the hard place of President Obama and the Democrats being labelled appeasers by national security hawks, and risking the presidency in 2012. Washington rationally decided to push back with the George Washington deployment. The problem is that this move has now laid the groundwork for a potential military escalation in the Yellow Sea, which has been the focus of Sino-American tensions this year. One expert, Dr. Leonid Petrov, thus considers that a renewed inter-Korean war pitting the United States against China is a very real scenario. In such an event, the George Washington would be the first to come into the crosshairs of China’s sparkling new anti-ship missiles, which have the Pentagon worried. Alternatively, if the North Korean military or Dear Leader Junior were irrational enough to pre-emptively sink the aircraft carrier with one of North Korea’s estimated 63 submarines, Washington would inevitably respond as it did to Pearl Harbour. A third scenario, and arguably the most likely, is simply that a human error will lead one side to assume that the other is attacking, and thus to jump headfirst into an accidental war. That is what could have occurred yesterday, when South Korea accidentally fired in the direction of the DMZ, only to frantically cable the North to assure them that this was not intentional. Clearly, accidents happen. Pitting two of the most redoubtable armed forces in the world in a tight geographical space—with two Koreas in the middle, one trigger-happy and the other increasingly jittery—is just begging fate to come knocking.


-          China. Unsurprisingly, all eyes are on Beijing in this crisis. The People’s Republic of China is the only real international friend of its fellow “Democratic” People’s Republic of Korea. (Pyongyang’s only other international partnerships are with such distinguished rogue states as Iran). China basically has an interest in keeping what is essentially a failing state (North Korea) alive, stable, and non-U.S. aligned. Firstly, a reunified Korea, under the South’s rule, would provide the nightmare scenario of U.S. troops operating within proximity of the Chinese heartland (Russia empathises). Indeed, according to the latest Wikileaks stunt, U.S. and South Korean officials have already planned how to reunify the Koreas if the North collapses, even discussing how best to co-opt China. Beijing knows this, and would probably rather have an erratic, kooky, pain-in-backside neighbour rather than an ally of Uncle Sam’s, hosting American intelligence-gathering bases on China’s front porch. Secondly, China is wary of the fact that a regime collapse would mean millions of starved and oppressed North Korean refugees fleeing into Chinese territory. Of course, there are varying schools of thought in Beijing on what to do about the DPRK. But the voices most likely to prevail are those in favour of the status quo, which urge that shoring up ‘blood brothers’ (for whom Chinese soldiers fought in the 1950s) is an expedient tactic to deny further U.S. encroachment in East Asia.

Unsurprisingly again, then, China’s response to the North Korean attack was muted, and largely consisted of calling for the U.S. not to escalate tensions, and for a resuscitation of the failed Six-Party Talks—which involve China, the U.S., Russia, Japan and the two Koreas. Aside from that diplomatic card, China did not condemn the North, as the U.S. had urged, just as China watered down a UN Security Council resolution earlier this year in response to the sinking of the Cheonan. North Korea was not even mentioned by name, let alone blamed for its attack. The Chinese initiative—and most of the world was calling for China’s initiative on this matter, demonstrating Beijing’s sole and only influence over the DPRK—is diametrically opposed to the South Korean and American positions. Both Seoul and Washington have adopted the official line that no formal negotiations can take place with North Korea until it agrees to renounce nuclear enrichment. Both were therefore disappointed with China’s response to the crisis. This is the ultimate deadlock, and one side or both will have to make concessions for a negotiated settlement to this crisis to be found.


These are only the most important interested parties to the ongoing Korean crisis. Other major players include Japan, which would probably align with the United States and South Korea in a war with the North. Similarly, Australia has already announced its intention of joining the fray alongside the South if it comes to war. Russia, which is seeking to expand its influence and role in the Asia-Pacific, would no doubt become involved too. At present, Moscow is attempting to help in mediating the crisis, but Russian troops and naval units are apparently exercising at sea and on land in the Far East—even if the Russian government insists that these are unrelated to the ongoing crisis. As a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) member, Moscow would probably be asked to aid China in any direct military conflict with the United States. But Russia would evidently be torn, as it is itself wary of China’s military rise in Asia, and seems increasingly interested in burying the hatchet with NATO. The point, then, is that escalation of inter-Korean tensions should not be in any party’s rational self-interest—even for Pyongyang which, at least theoretically, should be interested in régime survival. But to what extent is the North Korean leadership rational the same way that East Germany was rational in collapsing quietly without risking a diversionary and desperate war? Miscalculation rather than a war of choice, in other words, will be the greatest risk over the next seven days.


The situation is fluctuating every day. No one yet knows the outcome of the latest South Korean-American war games in the Yellow Sea. No one knows how China’s efforts at mediating between the Koreas are progressing, or if they exist at all. No one can say with certainty what South Korea’s response would be to another limited North Korean strike or even why such a strike occurred in the first place. The only certainty is that international security, and regional war and peace, are now more tightly inter-twined in the Korean peninsula than ever before. If Washington hopes to deescalate the situation, it will have to accept Beijing’s major role in negotiations with North Korea. If China wishes to avoid a regional war, it must act to restrain Pyongyang, and keep its own naval forces miles away from the USS George Washington. Let’s hope that is enough to cool hot heads on all sides.


*Foreword will publish updates as the crisis develops*



Strategic Update: Diplomacy Failing (1 December 2010)


The past 48 hours have seen a public information black-out of sorts over the ongoing Korean crisis. Is this the result of:

a) a sophisticated North Korean information warfare campaign;
b) decreasing tensions between the Koreas;
c) an oversight of the international press;  or
d) none of the above?


Try d). Although c) is also part of the story. In fact, inter-Korean tensions are not decreasing at all, they’ve hit a dangerous plateau—consisting of tense militaries, manoeuvring politicians, and sleepless diplomats—somewhere between war and peace. If you were wondering, what actually caused the media’s decreased interest in the Korean crisis (should you have lived disconnected from all modern forms of communication) is the handy work of one vindictive Australian, with some of the world’s most powerful police forces after him. That’s right, WikiLeaks did it. The great flood of thousands of secret U.S. Department of State diplomatic cables (AKA the “global diplomatic crisis”) has distracted the entire world, perhaps conveniently for several negotiating teams about to converge on Beijing. At this time when the very profession of diplomacy is being cast into doubt by sensationalistic journalism and a popular anti-government backlash fit to rival the Tea Party, will these negotiations succeed? Can a new Korean war be averted by the practitioners at the centre of a global media storm? Once again, the odds don’t look good.


Regarding WikiLeak’s massive information “dump” on American foreign policy-making, Stephen Colbert’s gut feeling is that Julian Assange may ultimately be tempting nations to revert back to time-honoured traditions of official communication: i.e. war. Some would beg to differ, and see a silver lining for diplomacy in this crisis. But, interestingly, the WikiLeaks episode may be directly affecting matters of war and peace in real-time, namely in the attempted and perhaps still-born negotiations over the Korean crisis. Here is how.


One of the revelations among the industrial-scale diplomatic leak is that a new generation of Chinese officials apparently view North Korea as a “spoiled child”, and allegedly expressed the view to their American colleagues that “Korea should be unified under ROK [Republic of Korea] control.” This would seem to fly in the face of Foreword’s previous prediction that Chinese status quo voices are likely to triumph in the current crisis. Some South Korean or American negotiators, having read the leaks as sensationalised by the press, may even be preparing for emergency talks organised by China with the assumption that Beijing is ready to let go of its spoiled neighbour/client state. But that is a false assumption. To be sure, China is rhetorically espousing a balanced stance between the Koreas, which is signalling some space opening up between China and the DPRK leadership. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi argues that China “decides its position based on the merits of each case and does not seek to protect any side.” But that is only rhetoric, and Chinese policies are another reality altogether.


Beijing’s main move in this crisis has been to call for a resumption of the failed Six-Party Talks, which were aimed at denuclearising the Korean peninsula, and to denounce those unnamed powers making demonstrations of power in unnamed geographical areas—read the United States in the Yellow Sea. The U.S.-South Korean war games seem to have concluded, with a “fairly uneventful” tour of duty for American service-men and -women aboard the USS George Washington. But Seoul and Washington are already planning further military exercises in the coming weeks and months. And the temperature keeps on rising, with the U.S. apparently transporting some 30,000 tonnes of jet fuel from Japan to South Korea. Obviously, any relation to the current crisis is officially disavowed by the Obama administration, but it is a clear signal of military and political commitment to defending South Korea’s territorial integrity. That much jet fuel would come in mighty handy should the U.S. need to, say, refuel tanks and fighter planes in a potential Korean battlefield. America may not want a war, but it appears to be preparing for one—just in case. Meanwhile, both Koreas are also on a war readiness footing—just in case. And China, too, has military plans in place to forestall the North Korean régime’s collapse in case of implosion, or external attack—just in case. Seeing a pattern?


Where does that leave the world’s diplomats, scurrying between Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington, and in the halls of the United Nations? Thanks to the WikiLeaks scandal, they have been given a time-out from the media limelight, which can fatally wound the most well-intentioned negotiations. On the other hand, between nations as between individuals, where no trust exists no deal can either. In this regard, the second diplomatic crisis of the week—and by far the less meaningful one—is impacting upon the more serious one. Quite simple, the Korean crisis involves tangible matters of life and death, and international peace and security, rather than backdoor gossip about who Libyan President Gaddafi likes to have nurse him, or what Silvio Berlusconi does in his free time. The WikiLeaks backlash is, paradoxically, both temporarily benefiting and undermining negotiations over the Koreas, because diplomats are now operating in a hostile international climate of distrust and probably increased secrecy.


Hence, do not expect a major diplomatic breakthrough at the UN resulting in stern Chinese condemnation of North Korea’s aggressiveness and military provocations. In reality, Beijing has done exactly the opposite of what the leaked cable (and gossip journalism) suggested—namely blocking a United Nations resolution against Pyongyang. In the sinking of the Cheonan as in the bombing of Yeonpyeong, Beijing is clearly aligned in this conflict, and certainly not with the Americans & co. “Against the wishes of the vast majority of the Security Council members,” according to one diplomat, “China is blocking any action on the uranium enrichment plant and there is not much hope of any talk about the attack…It is now very likely that the Security Council will do nothing about North Korea.” As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would confirm if available to comment, U.S. diplomacy is clearly not having a good day. The hype and hyperbole surrounding WikiLeaks is ephemeral, and will probably not cause lasting global impacts on the business of diplomacy. But it may be directly affecting this week’s crisis negotiations, presumably not for the better. The failure of diplomacy in the current Korean crisis could have disastrous consequences on the ground. And failing it seems to be.



Strategic Update 2: Mutually-assured deterrence? (3 December 2010)


The crisis continues. We are not referring to the highly-mediatised diplomatic crisis sparked by WikiLeaks; although that one still shows no sign of abating. The more consequential and under-appreciated crisis, as we argued in the previous Strategic Update, is that currently occurring on the Korean peninsula. In the past two days, diplomatic deadlock (or is that sclerosis?) had already set in at the United Nations. Today, the deadlock appears to be giving way where international diplomats least want it to: on the ground. The delicate balance of mutual-deterrence between the Koreas is being disturbed as China aligns ever-more closely with its beleaguered North Korean neighbour. Meanwhile, South Korea is further hardening its military position towards the North, potentially setting the stage for future “kinetics” on the ground or at sea.


In the previous Update (1 December), we bet that China’s alleged distancing from North Korea in this crisis was a straw man—at least at the tactical level. Now, at Foreword we don’t do “I told you so’s”. We don’t have crystal balls. And, like all humans, we are prone to strategic miscalculations. But in this case, our argument seems to have been confirmed by subsequent events. To be sure, it is likely that younger segments of Chinese officialdom are increasingly entertaining the thoughts of pulling the plug on North Korea’s life support—namely Chinese aid and trade. But that is not China’s policy; at least not yet. If anything, this crisis has only strengthened the hand of those Chinese officials in favour of propping up the Kim dynasty for well-defined tactical purposes, covered in previous posts.


Ironically, the coincidence of the global WikiLeaks scandal, and the alleged revelation that China may have accepted that it was time for a changing of the guard in Pyongyang, may have only increased the incentive for Beijing to close any space opening up with North Korea. Indeed, China was very cautious and selective in responding to the WikiLeaked diplomatic cables, especially on the question of whether China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, took an attractive side payment to secure a Chinese company mining rights to North Korean copper deposits. Basically, China’s response to WikiLeaks was two-fold: restrict access at home, and shore up Pyongyang diplomatically. The latter, which we had guestimated was more likely than any further distancing of bilateral ties, seems to have occurred. After defending Pyongyang at the UN, Beijing played host to a North Korean delegation. What was the tea-time conversation about? The official message of the trip, in public at least, was summed up by a high-ranking Chinese legislator, who told the North Koreans:


“The traditional friendship of China and North Korea has withstood the tests of international tempests and changes and replenished itself over time.”


Bilateral strains, what strains? Our partnership is doing fine, thank you, we don’t need relationship counselling. Or something to that effect. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu also lashed out at an anonymous external power currently patrolling the Yellow Sea with its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and powerful naval fleet: “Those who brandish weapons are seen to be justified, yet China is criticized for calling for talks. Is that justified?” China also expressed concern at the fact that the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies are meeting in Washington on Monday—without China represented. The diplomatic battle lines are hardening, as China is now more or less openly backing North Korea in this crisis, and the United States is reciprocating with South Korea. Sino-American relations, as we have repeatedly express concern about in recent months, are now held hostage to the unpredictable and highly-combustible train of the inter-Korean military stand-off.


And North-South relations are precisely the concern right now, because of symmetric competitive measures being carried out by both sides. According to newly-released information, South Korea retaliated militarily only minutes after the North’s attack on Yeonpyeong island on 23 November. Afterwards, the North feigned renewed attacks, by carrying out training fire in the vicinity of the islands. Now, South Korea’s intelligence agencies are warning of a renewed attack by the North if and when the United States stops patrolling the Yellow Sea, and President Lee Myung-bak is under increasing domestic pressure for his handling of the crisis, which is accused of being indecisive and insufficiently tough. Thus, Seoul is increasingly playing to a nationalist tune to “remain both elected and alive,” as previously put on Foreword.


Here is the current setting: Pyongyang has promised to “deliver a brutal military blow on any provocation which violates our territorial waters”. Undeterred, South Korean officials vowed to carry out live-ammunition training near the disputed maritime border—which the North considers its “territorial waters”. Meanwhile, the incoming South Korean Defence Minister, having been appointed to allay domestic criticism, gave a hint of how he would respond to a future military incident: “If North Korea provokes again, we will definitely use aircraft to attack North Korea.” Add to this the fact that the Obama administration now sees North Korea as an even greater nuclear threat than before, as well as the fact that the U.S. and China are attempting to outflank each other diplomatically, and you have a crisis which shows all the early warnings of possible future escalation.

Whilst a full-scale military confrontation is unlikely in the short-term, save for a unilateral action by either North or South Korea, miscalculations can and may sooner or later happen. What is self-defence to one is a brash provocation to the other, especially in the hotly-disputed waters around Yeonpyeong island. This will remain the most dangerous point of friction in coming days. Diplomacy seems to be grinding to a halt, or at least bifurcating into a pro-North and a pro-South camp, led by China and the United States respectively. Hence, Foreword does not expect a resumption of 1950-like military hostilities in the immediate future, even if tensions remain dangerously high. The complex security dilemma between the North and South, compounded by a bad year in Sino-American relations, raises the stakes and potential costs of any one side defecting from the balance of terror. That’s the theory, at least. In practice, humans are a lot messier and less predictable than your typical rational-choice model may assume. Each side is hoping that the existing North-South (and tacit U.S.-China) balance of military deterrence withholds all of the pressures which continue accruing each day. But the greatest unknown is whether this is hope all sides can believe in.


About the author: Daryl Morini

Daryl Morini is an Analyst, Editor and Co-Founder of Foreword. He is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Queensland, specialising in preventive diplomacy.

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