Fresh Tensions In The Korean Peninsula
Tension is never ending in the Korean peninsula amidst either because of Pyongyang’s provocative actions or because of its reactions to Seoul’s and its ally’s (the US) response to such provocations by way of preparedness to meet to such provocations. Time and again Pyongyang has upped the ante by one mischief or another, the latest being the failed rocket launch last April and now suspected to a third nuclear test soon.
Tension in the Korean Peninsula remains high following the North’s two military attacks in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans. The South’s military has vowed a tougher retaliation if provoked again.
After the rocket fiasco of April 2012, it was widely rumoured that Pyongyang would plan to detonate a third nuclear device, an action that the isolated country had been widely perceived to be readying, though it said it had no current plans to do so. However, following perceived antagonistic US policy towards the Stalinist state, Pyongyang announced in early August that it had no other option but to “re-examine” its nuclear weapons effort. An unidentified Foreign Ministry official said that “the consistent hostile policy towards the D.P.R.K. pursued by the US is giving rise to the evil cycle of confrontation and tensions on the Korean Peninsula, making the prospect of denuclearising the peninsula all the more gloomy.” The statement could mean that North Korea would re-examine the nuclear issue and that the country intends to ramp up its nuclear weapons development.
Pyongyang is upset with an April decision by the Obama administration to cancel a planned food assistance shipment of 240,000 tons agreed in February as punishment for the North’s failed attempt to deploy a new satellite via a long-range rocket. The US strongly objected to the rocket launch and termed it as illegal under UN Security Council resolutions that forbid North Korea from employing ballistic missile technology.
The food aid was to have been provided under a now-dead bilateral deal that would also have rolled back a number of North Korean nuclear weapons development-related activities. There had been hope that the agreement could lead to resumption of six-nation negotiations on North Korean denuclearisation, which were last held in December 2008.
When the United States and South Korea on August 20 initiated two weeks of yearly war games aimed at assessing readiness for a potential fresh outbreak of hostilities with North Korea, Pyongyang reacted strongly to the military drill.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise began on August 20 and to last through August 31. The UN Command Military Armistice Commission informed Pyongyang through its border village Panmunjom of the exercise dates and “non-provocative nature” of the training. According to the Combined Forces Command (CFC), approximately 30,000 US troops and roughly 56,000 South Korean military personnel took part in the computer-assisted drill. The drill also included some 3,000 from the US and other bases around the Pacific region. The drill was in accordance with allied efforts to defend against a belligerent North Korea. Military personnel from seven UN Command nations – Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Norway, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom also participated in the drill as observers.
According to the head of the US military personnel in South Korea, Gen. James Thurman, “Ulchi Freedom Guardian is a key exercise to strengthen the readiness of Republic of Korea and US forces,” and that it “is based on realistic scenarios and enables us to train on our essential tasks with a whole of government.” The CFC, which oversees the bilateral activities of the US and South Korean armed forces on the peninsula, said it late July that North Korea was made aware of the schedule of the military maneuvers as well as their “non-provocative nature.”
North Korea typically lashes out at such military exercises with heated rhetoric. Pyongyang opposes the military exercises the US regularly holds in the region with allies South Korea and Japan and therefore, characterises them as preparations for an invasion. Seoul and Washington have countered that the drill was defensive in nature. They claim that the drill was to discourage Pyongyang from mounting new armed hostilities. Because of this, the Stalinist state declared it would “totally re-examine” its nuclear weapons posture.
Separately, the North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un encouraged a forward-deployed armed forces unit to harshly retaliate should any South Korean artillery fall into the North’s waters. He ordered the service persons “not to miss their golden chance to deal at once deadly counter-blows at the enemy if even a single shell is dropped on the waters or in the area where the sovereignty of the DPRK is exercised”. Kim exhorted his troops to “lead the battle to a sacred war for national reunification, not confining it to a local war.” Pyongyang described the Ulchi maneuvers as “an all-out war rehearsal” for attacks on North Korea.
Washington rejected Pyongyang’s claim of an antagonistic policy. In fact, as a matter of longstanding policy, the US is committed to the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and has clarified that it has no hostile intent towards North Korea. If North Korea continues to pursue such provocations or issues threats, such acts would provide with no real opportunity for engagement with the international community and therefore it would be in North Korea’s interests to adhere to its international obligations including all relevant UN Security Council resolutions and human rights conventions.
The Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice. About 28,500 US soldiers are stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the war.
Apart from its opposition to the military drills and its plan to re-examine its nuclear program because of fresh signs of perceived US hostility towards the communist state, Pyongyang accused the US of masterminding an attack on the statues of its dead leaders by sending a defector who had fled to the South back into the country to destroy them. Pyongyang took strong exception to the alleged complicity of the US and South Korea in attempting to demolish statues of its founding leader, Kim Il-sung, in North Korea near the Chinese border, citing testimony from a North Korean defector, Jon Yong-chol. Jon, who returned to the North after being captured, claimed that he took part in the plot in return for the promise of money from South Korean and US authorities.
In the meantime, “unconfirmed intelligence reports” being circulated by a South Korean newspaper that former top-ranking North Korean military officer Ri Yong Ho, who was stripped of his rank, might have been injured, perhaps fatally, in a gun battle after allied military personnel fought back against an armed effort to bring the ex-General Staff head into custody. Ri was dismissed in early July in a move that foreign observers widely concluded was a power play by ruler Kim Jong-un to bolster his own influence over the North’s powerful military. In view of the domestic tensions that are suspected to be brewing inside North Korea, another provocation and possibly another nuclear detonation by the young leader just to shift attention as well as to prove to the world that he is in full control cannot be ruled out. It is not clear how long the fragile peace in the Korean peninsula will last or will become worse.
By Rajaram Panda
(The author, a leading expert on East Asian affairs, was formerly Senior Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi.)