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Mar 30 2013

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North Korea Again Rattles Nerves

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Man-Boy Threatens Peace...

Man-Boy Threatens Peace…

What is going on with North Korea?

Since late last year, the Hermit Kingdom has been systematically engaged in a campaign of increasingly reckless rhetoric and behavior that has set a new threshold for brazenness, even by Pyongyang’s standards. North Korean actions have needlessly increased tensions in an area where the interests of the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 12th largest economies converge, creating durable if unnecessary uncertainty.

Last December, the North Koreans successfully launched a 3-stage rocket – demonstrating a significant increase in the range of North Korean ballistic missile technology – which triggered immediate international condemnation. Undeterred, in February, North Korea tested another nuclear weapon, despite international warnings.

This was followed by a barrage of rapidly deployed and unsettling rhetoric.

On March 5th, the North Koreans “scrapped” the 1953 armistice. On the 7th, the North threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the US and South Korea.  Ont the 8th, it voided the nonaggression pact with South Korea. On the 27th, the North Koreans cut the hotline between North and South. Today, North Korea announced that it had entered a “state of war” with the South.

At least some of the reasoning for these comments can be attributed to an habitual North Korean paranoia regarding annual US-South Korean military exercises, which this year began on March 1st, and have included high-profile flights by nuclear capable US B-52 and B-2 stealth bombers.

But even factoring in for North Korean bluster, the new public statements have broken fresh ground creating anxiety and uncertainty. And that uncertainty is sobering. While not as technologically sophisticated as the US or South Korean forces, the North Koreans are capable of doing unimaginable damage on South Korea (and regionally) if left to their own devices.

The North Koreans have one million men under arms, organized into 170 divisions.  700,000 troops, 8,000 artillery pieces and 2,000 tanks are garrisoned in hardened, underground facilities within 100 miles of the DMZ, allowing for the possibility of a short-notice, surprise attack.

Seoul, capital of South Korea, is less than 30 miles away from the DMZ. 40% of South Korea’s population resides within 40 miles of Seoul.  From coast to coast Korea is 77 miles wide. It is 62 miles from the DMZ to the southern city of Pusan, a little wider than the distance between Washington, DC and Baltimore. This would be the immediate battlefield.  Anyone who has tried to commute between those two American cities at rush hour can only imagine what it would be like in the middle of a war.

Without having to move its artillery,it is estimated that the North Koreans could sustain a barrage of the South at a rate of 500,000 rounds per hour, or nearly 10,000 per minute; a sustained rate of fire not seen since the Soviet advance on Berlin in 1945. More ominously, the North Koreans have at least 500 artillery pieces with enough range to reach Seoul with tens of thousands of rounds. None of this takes into account North Korea’s significant WMD stockpile. The South Korean Ministry of Defense estimated that 50 North Korean missiles carrying nerve gas would kill 38% of Seoul’s 12 million residents.

It is simply damage and loss of life on level that would be unimaginable by contemporary standards.

There are 28,000 US troops in South Korea, many forward deployed at the DMZ.  In the event of a surprise attack, the US would face greater casualities in a matter of days or even hours than the ten year total for both Iraq and Afghanistan. It would not be Fallujah, no matter how brutal that fight was.  This would be Omaha Beach; but this time with live feed video.

The US and South Korea have contingency plans, of course.

OP-Plan 5027, revised periodically since 1974 to take into account advances in North Korean arms, calls for a regional defensive strategy  in-depth (including Japan), overwhelming US air superiority and massive ground reinforcements to stop a North Korean invasion and counter attack. The war plan also explicitly considers the use of preemptive attacks to counter the North Koreans if war is imminent or probable.

What is absolutely certain though, is that if a shooting war begins in Korea, it will escalate quickly, and even in the briefest periods, could cause catastrophic damage and loss of life.

But why?

What is the advantage of North Korean saber-rattling at this level, now?

The calendar gives the best rationale.

The nations with vested interests in North Korean affairs are in the midst of varying stages of political transition at the same time.

In the US, President Obama was re-elected in November 2012 and sworn into a second-term in late January. Though the election produced continuity in US leadership, new department heads are only now taking the helm at State, Defense and the CIA, with new, senior advisors in White House. It is an untested team surrounding an experienced president.

In China, a once-a-decade transition of power has taken place between November ’12 and March, as Xi Jinping assumed the offices of President, General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Military Commission. Xi’s team is only now filling roles throughout the Chinese government bureaucracies. It is a government untested by crisis.

In South Korea, voters elected the country’s first female president in December. Park Geun-hye assumed office in February, and her new government is barely a month old. Also in December, Japan held election where the opposition Liberal Democrats won a landslide victory, making Shinzo Abe Prime Minister. Neither government has managed or weathered a major crisis.

Thus, the period between the autumn of 2012 and spring of 2013 has been one of considerable fluidity in northeast Asia as major powers have focused on internal political issues, highlighted, remarkably in each case, by domestic economic anxiety and concern. The period now remains one of transition as new teams find their footing and attempt to implement largely domestic-focused agendas.

This has left an unexpectedly large void for the North Koreans to exploit.

But opportunity only provides half the story for North Korean motivations. North Korea too has a new leader following the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. Kim Jong-un became the third leader of the dynastic police state following the death of his father.

Little is truly known about the inner workings of North Korean politics, but it is increasingly clear that the further North Korea gets from its founder, Kim Il-sung, the less legitimacy the Kim family has among competing power centers that have grown in North Korea since 1945, particularly the military.

Complicating matters, unlike his father Kim Jong-il, who was groomed for leadership for years before Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, Kim Jong-un was relatively thrown into the mix with the rapid decline and death of his father; only 30 years old (at best) and with little professional experience or accomplishment.  While Kim III has amassed titles much faster than his father – consolidating power between December 2011 and July 2012 –  it is unclear that he has gained the legitimacy that goes with those titles.

As tensions escalate in Korea, it is a fair to wonder what compromises or promises the Kim family had to make to assure Kim III’s power and authority, and whether that negotiation is concluded or ongoing? Perhaps more than any other country, North Korea’s foreign policy is driven directly by internal politics and its requirements. With that as a predicate, is the current bellicose rhetoric an internal initiative to establish Kim III’s credibility with the public? The bureaucracy? The military?  Or is it the result of a bargain with the military to take a harder line with outside world?

A great deal depends on the answer.

The danger right now does not appear to be general war as much as miscalculation that could rapidly escalate into war.

In 2010, a South Korean naval warship was sunk just south of the demilitarized zone, killing 46 South Korean sailors. An (disputed) international investigation blamed a North Korean torpedo for the incident, which the North Koreans promptly denied.

The attack on the South Korean ship was the most serious violation of the 1953 cease-fire, in a history of serial North Korean provocations. Yet, neither the US nor South Korea took any counter-military action as a result. While the US and South Korea have historically been prepared to respond to an actual, coordinated attack, there has been no official policy response for incidents that fall short of war, based on the not unreasonable expectation that a counter-attack against North Korea would trigger a general war and far greater damage.

But the sinking of the South Korean ship demonstrated the weaknesses of that policy.

So as the US has been conducting military exercises with the South Koreans this month, the allies have also announced a new policy that makes clear that any future North Korean attacks, no matter how limited, will be met with immediate and measured retaliatory action, jointly by the US/South Korea.

So, onto the power vacuum created by new and untested governments – uniformly focused on domestic issues –  is an overlay of North Korean insecurity and ruthless internal power politics, packaged for maximum international consumption. How far will Kim III go to secure his position, or to do the bidding of his supporters? Does he or the North Korean leadership believe that they can again tangle with the South for their own ends with immunity? How much longer can Kim III keep making threats without vanquishing his own shaky credibility by not acting?

What will the world suffer for Kim III’s machinations?

If there is a provocation, the US and South Korea will respond. It would be foolhardy in the extreme for anyone to doubt that President Obama will not fully meet US treaty requirements.

That is the tripwire today between rhetoric and war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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