North Korea Threat: is it cooling?

11 04 2013

NK missile launch drills (By Steven Borowiec, Chrisian Science Monitor, 10 April 2013) North Korea threat of missile launch continued to preoccupy the region today, which was the deadline North Korea gave for foreigners to leave South Korea to avoid conflict. But nothing happened.

North Korea picked Wednesday April 10 as the day by which foreign embassies in Pyongyang should submit evacuation plans, foreigners should leave South Korea, and South Korean workers should leave the now barely functioning Kaesong Industrial Complex, hinting at a provocation that could bring the area into a state of conflict.

Though North Korea has threatened South Korea many times in the past, this time analysts are viewing the situation differently, seriously considering the possibility of a large-scale provocation from the North. North Korea is believed to have moved two Musudan missiles to its eastern coast last week, leading many to predict an imminent missile launch. South Korean and US defense forces responded by upgrading their military surveillance postures looking for signs of a North Korean rocket launch.

But as the day came and went with no observed action, it raised the question: Have North Korea’s heated rhetoric and threats been bluffs? “The general principle is to escalate tensions in order to later be able to negotiate from a position of strength,” says Leonid Petrov, a researcher in Korean studies at Australian National University.

Musudan missiles have a range of about 1,875 miles, meaning they could reach anywhere in South Korea, Japan, or the US territory of Guam. But as the Musudan missiles have never been flight-tested by North Korea, their launch might be unlikely, as the North would be wary of the loss of face that would come with an unsuccessful launch attempt.

According to analysts, the raising of tensions may be a deliberate ploy to create an atmosphere of nervousness about North Korea’s next move and thereby strengthen Pyongyang’s hand when it comes time to negotiate next with the international community. North Korea, for example, raised eyebrows with seemingly irrational acts like pulling workers out of the joint North-South Kaesong economic industrial park, an important source of revenue for the cash-strapped country.

According to Mr. Petrov, this type of short-term move could pay off down the road when North Korea seeks aid or economic assistance. Hostile rhetoric can also contribute to more important ends like rallying citizens around an ideology of confrontation with enemies, particularly the US and South Korea. “North Korea’s leadership is willing to do things that may be self-harming in the short term. Money is not the most important thing to them. Things like maintaining their system, the stability of the leadership, the isolation of the people from other sources of information, those are the most critical things,” says Petrov.

In a New York Times opinion piece on Tuesday, Kookmin University professor Andrei Lankov wrote, “Put bluntly, North Korea’s government hopes to squeeze more aid from the outside world. Of late, it has become very dependent on Chinese aid, and it wants other sponsors as well.”

Today in Seoul, the US Department of State reiterated its position that there was no reason for US citizens to expect any special danger in South Korea, in a statement that read, “North Korea’s reported ‘advice’ to foreigners that they depart South Korea only serves to unnecessarily and provocatively escalate tensions.”

Still, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told a parliamentary hearing today, “according to intelligence obtained by our side and the US, the possibility of a missile launch by North Korea is very high.” Mr. Yun added that a missile launch could still come “at any time.”

South Korea’s police raised their state of terror alert one level from “attention” to “caution” out of concern for a possible North Korean terrorist attack.

Dates and numbers have great symbolic importance to North Korea, so Pyongyang often schedules what Washington calls “provocative acts” around holidays and important political events. Some are eying the anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the state’s founder and the current leader’s grandfather, on April 15.

Also on Wednesday, the South Korean government announced that it had determined that North Korea was behind cyber-attacks that disrupted the systems of several banks and broadcasters on March 20. This has fed speculation that North Korea will increasingly use asymmetric tactics that are still harmful but avoid direct military conflict, where it is at a significant disadvantage.

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TOURIST VISITS TO NORTH KOREA SUSPENDED

10 04 2013

NK tourism suspended(NKnews.org, April 9, 2013) A China based travel company has announced that all tours to North Korea will be suspended from tomorrow due to spiraling tensions on the peninsula.

The news followed a warning made by Pyongyang today which advised foreigners based in South Korea to start preparing evacuation plans in the event that conflict takes place in the coming days.

Dandong based “Explore North Korea” published a notification this evening at 9:43pm Chinese time which told customers that all tours to the DPRK would be cancelled until further notice.

Following a nearly two hour long meeting with North Korean tour officials, the Chinese company posted an advisory adding that tours would only be resumed once official confirmation was provided by North Korea.

“Explore North Korea” normally brings western visitors to North Korea and would have normally carried out between five tours this April, having departure dates scheduled April 11, 13, 15, 17, and 20.

Another China based tourist source confirmed the development to NK NEWS by email today, adding that the Dandong Tourism Board would not be accepting Chinese citizens into North Korea as of April 10, 2013.

However, western tour operators “Koryo Tours” and ”Young Pioneer Tours” both said today that there were no plans to cancel any of their forthcoming tours, making it unclear if the suspension was being targeted at all companies.

Leonid Petrov, a researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra., told NK NEWS today that the moved showed a “logical” and “consistent” approach to escalating a feeling of crisis on the peninsula: “War zones are incompatible with joint industrial parks, travel groups or even with foreign embassies. Pyongyang wants to convince the world that Korea will soon be engulfed in the flames of nuclear inferno. The scary truth is that this can really happen regardless of who makes the first shot.”

Though directly unrelated to the latest news, Sweden based Korea Konsult posted a warning four days ago saying that all tours throughout April would be cancelled following the latest travel advisory warning issued by the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

For its part, the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to say that travel to North Korea remains unaffected by the latest tensions, noting, ”Our overall assessment is that there is currently no immediate increased risk or danger to those living in or travelling to the DPRK as a result of these statements.”

The potential suspension of tours to North Korea follows warnings sent to Foreign embassies in Pyongyang last week which stated North Korean authorities would be “unable to guarantee the safety of embassies and international organisations in the country in the event of conflict from April 10.”

While the significance of the April 10 date is uncertain, it comes just days before North Korea’s April 15 celebration of the 101st anniversary of founding leader Kim Il Sung.

Last year North Korea launched a long-range rocket three days before the 100 year celebration of his birth, and there are fears that Pyongyang may be planning a mid-range missile launch to coincide in some way with this year’s anniversary.

Despite the latest developments, some observers still believe that the latest warnings are simply rhetoric and nothing more than a North Korean attempt to ratchet up tension to levels unseen in recent years.

Inter-Korean relations are at a low point following weeks of recriminations between Seoul and Pyongyang. Relations spiraled out of control following UN condemnation of North Korea’s third nuclear test in February.





North Korea closing Kaesong complex after worker recall

8 04 2013

North Korean workers at the South-owned Shinwon clothes company in Kaesong industrial park(by Tania Branigan, The Guardian, 8 April 2013) North Korea has said it will recall more than 50,000 workers from the industrial park it runs with the South and consider shutting it permanently, spelling an end to inter-Korean co-operation. Pyongyang has engaged in weeks of angry rhetoric in response to a UN security council resolution expanding sanctions following its third nuclear test and to ongoing joint exercises by South Korean and US forces.

But analysts noted that while the latest move by Pyongyang was substantive, it was also a non-military one made amid concerns that the North might be planning another missile or nuclear test. The Kaesong industrial complex has been a much-needed source of income for the impoverished North and a cheap source of workers for labour-intensive South Korean firms.

The statement from a senior party Workers’ party official, carried by the KCNA state news agency, warned that operations would be suspended while the future of Kaesong was reviewed. “The zone is now in the grip of a serious crisis,” Kim Yang Gon said. “It is a tragedy that the industrial zone, which should serve purposes of national reconciliation, unity, peace and reunification, has been reduced to a theatre of confrontation between compatriots and war against the North.”

He did not mention the 475 South Korean managers still at Kaesong. The North has prevented personnel and supplies from entering from the South since last week. According to Associated Press, about a dozen of more than 120 South Korean companies at Kaesong have halted production owing to lack of supplies.

“The temporary suspension is likely to become the final sigh of the sunshine policy as we knew it,” said Leonid Petrov, an expert on the North at Australian National University. “It’s understandable that as they proclaimed war it would be inconsistent with the desire to produce sneakers and LCDs at the same time … North Korea is sending a strong message to prove that money means nothing for the regime and its nuclear missile programmes are not for sale and not negotiable.”

Seoul’s policy of free-flowing aid and engagement was ended by South Korea’s previous president, Lee Myung-bak, who took office in 2008. Petrov argued future attempts at co-operation would have to start from scratch, adding: “It is unlikely it will happen under Park Geun-hye given the conservative origins of her party. “Many people blamed the sunshine policy for being ineffective, but that’s not correct: it was too successful for its time. It achieved a lot but was too dangerous for the North and too expensive for the South.”

James Hoare, the former British chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang, said: “It may be that among the military there are those who never liked [Kaesong] and saw it as a Trojan horse. It may be they’ve decided they won’t carry on with it, but they could still row backwards. It is not militarily threatening. It’s a gesture which to me looks foolish from the North Korean point of view, but it isn’t firing rockets or doing a nuclear test.” He pointed out that attempts at engagement with the North had often stumbled, from the early 1970s onwards. But he added: “It’s very unfortunate for the workers, who will lose their wages and other perks.”

Stephan Haggard of the Washington-bade Peterson Institute, an expert on North Korean economics, wrote last year: “For North Korea, [Kaesong] is a cash cow that even hardliners have been loath to push the way of the Mount Kumgang project. Since 2004, total wage payments for North Korean workers in the KIC has totalled $245.7m, rising from $380,000 in 2004 … to $45.93m in the first half of 2012. For Pyongyang, even hardliners can see that this is a no-brainer.”

One possibility is that the North believes it must threaten a clearly valuable asset to send the message that it is serious in its stance. Another possibility mooted by experts is that it could hope to expropriate the factories and hand them over to members of the elite, bolstering domestic support for the regime.





Titanic struggle for unification keeps the two Koreas apart

3 04 2013

War and peace in Korea(Leonid Petrov, Australian Financial Review, 3 April 2013)

At the beginning of every spring Northeast Asia is marked by resumed tensions between North and South Korea. Naval clashes in disputed waters, skirmishing across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), military drills and strong-worded rhetoric are hardly novel. Nevertheless, this year we are witnessing inter-Korean tensions reaching unprecedented heights. Something that looked like a seasonal aggravation of a slow-motion war now threatens to slip out of control and become a full-scale war between the two halves of the divided peninsula.

The Korean War, which started in June 1950 as a war to unify Korea, was effectively turned by the UN into an international conflict, where a coalition of sixteen countries, led by the United States, fought North Korea and China. Miraculously the conflict did not explode into World War III where the use of nuclear weapons would have been almost certain. Resulting in a stalemate and fragile truce, the Korean War left behind the two irreconcilable regimes – with capitals in Pyongyang and Seoul – frustrated and increasingly adamant to resume the war and accomplish national unification.

Compromise and reconciliation were not in the two Koreas’ political vocabulary until the early 1970s, when the post-war economic development of North and South Korea became comparable. This was when the International Red Cross organisation helped separated families from the North and South meet for the first time since the fratricidal conflict. In 1974 Pyongyang approached Washington with a proposal for a peace treaty; the North Koreans also approached Seoul with a comprehensive plan for peaceful unification. However, the continuing ideological and economic competition of the Cold War in the region precluded the restoration of peace.

Since then the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the US have staged biannual joint military drills, which take place in the West (Yellow) Sea, south of the DMZ, and in the East Sea (Sea of Japan). During these drills, the allies deploy new types of weapons and tactics, including a simulated nuclear strike. Since the collapse of the Communist Bloc, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has developed its own nuclear and missile programs as a deterrence. But neither of these preparations have helped resolve the persisting security dilemma. Seoul and Pyongyang continue to see one other as sworn enemies, each waiting for the imminent collapse of the other, providing the opportunity for unification.

Even the temporary détente in relations between North and South, known as the decade of the “Sunshine Policy” (1998-2007), did not fully dissipate mistrust and animosity in Korea. Pyongyang continued building its nuclear and missile arsenal, while Seoul continued regular joint military, naval and air drills with its US ally, deploying ever more advanced weapons of mass destruction. As a result, negative inter-dependence has been created in relations between North Korea and US allies in the Asia-Pacific region. North Koreans blame the United States for all its economic misfortunes, while the US and its regional allies, including Australia, always find faults in Pyongyang’s actions and intentions.

Last week, after 60 years of slow-motion war thinly covered by the 1953 Armistice Agreement, Pyongyang finally found the courage to call a spade a spade. The ambiguity of the current situation is no longer tolerable for North Koreans, who are tired of sanctions, double standards in international relations, and nuclear bullying. The situation of “neither war nor peace” has already led to famine, stagnation and isolation of this rich and strategically important part of Northeast Asia. By proclaiming a “state of war” with South Korea and the US, Kim Jong-Un is simply reminding the world about this unresolved problem inherited from the Cold War era.

Originally published by the Australian Financial Review as “Titanic struggle for unification keeps the two Koreas apart” (03/04/2013)

Also published by Sharnoff’s Global Views as “War and Peace in Korea”





In Harm’s Way: Australia and North Korea

2 04 2013

Kevin Rudd(by Sasha Petrova, Crikey, 26 March 2013) In late 2011, then Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd wrote an opinion piece in which he warned Australia about the threat of missile attack from North Korea – a “cruel, totalitarian state” that he claimed could “prove to be our worst nightmare.”

“The secretive North Koreans are hard at work to threaten our allies, our region and us. North Korea has not only developed nuclear weapons, it is also building missiles that could, in future, reach Australia,” Rudd wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Drawing on the two nuclear tests conducted by North Korea in 2006 and 2009, and the imminent destabilising transition of power, Rudd cautioned that “we, in Australia, have no cause for comfort.” He detailed that the rogue regime’s development of the Taepo-Dong 2 – a long-range missile that was tested in 2006 but crashed shortly after take-off – put Australia well within its purported 9000km range, with Darwin lying 6000km and Sydney 8500km away.

Less than two years on, a successful missile launch and another nuclear test later, should we heed Rudd’s warnings? With increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, continuous threats from an ambitious Kim Jung-un, a ramping up of US military drills in South Korea, Pyongyang’s nullification of the 1953 Korean Armistice and last Monday’s propaganda video of an imagined attack against Washington, could Australia truly be in harm’s way?

Not according to Dr Leonid Petrov, a Korean Studies expert from the Australian National University. “North Koreans don’t have any intention to attack Australia,” he says. “They didn’t event test an ICBM.” The gravest fear is of North Korea developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of mounting a nuclear warhead.

Pyongyang claimed that its missile launch in December last year was purely for the purposes of putting a satellite into orbit for weather and maritime monitoring. “I don’t have any reason not to trust them because in fact they did put the satellite into orbit. It was, in essence, very similar to what South Korea did the following month – in January 2013. It launched a missile that had the same pattern of flight, the same orbit and was flying southward towards Australia.”

Moreover, Dr Petrov puts Rudd’s grave warnings down to personal histrionics based on a grudge he has held against the North Koreans for some time. “I was surprised to see when Kevin Rudd won the elections in late 2007 and the North Korean embassy in Canberra packed up and left in January 2008. Something must have happened between the North Korean embassy and Kevin Rudd ‘s administration that prompted the North Korean embassy to leave.”

Personal grievances aside, it’s impossible to dismiss Pyongyang’s aggressive behaviour. Indeed a failed missile test in March 2012 was reportedly headed in our direction, with a personal warning issued to Bob Carr by the US State Department.

Australia has long been on alert to a threat from the north. The 2009 Defence White Paper considered “threats posed by ballistic missiles and their proliferation, particularly by states of concern such as North Korea,” as potential strategic challenges. Recently, the National Security Strategy also flagged the tensions and unstable environment on the Korean Peninsula, particularly arising from North Korea, as worrisome for Australia.

North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, the most comprehensive international agreement to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, still draws widespread condemnation; it’s nuclear ambitions continuing to alarm world leaders. Consequent six-party talks and other negotiations about its suspected – and self-professed – nuclear program have failed to reach a suitable compromise.

Australia has been one of the 15 members of the Security Council who, in January, unanimously voted to adopt sanctions against North Korea under Resolution 2087. These imposed travel bans and asset freezes on some senior officials. In response to the latest nuclear test in February, the most recent resolution strengthened and intensified the sanctions already in place since its first test in 2006.

For Australia, these sanctions mean a ban on supplying, selling or transferring all arms and related material to North Korea as well as a wide list of items, materials, equipment and technology that relates to ballistic missile programs or weapons of mass destruction.

These impositions have only served to aggravate the regime further. While Pyongyang continues to conduct missile and nuclear tests in clear violation of Security Council Resolutions, its nullification of the 1953 truce to end the Korean War stands as the most problematic of its retaliatory actions so far. In this regard, Dr Petrov considers the situation to be more serious now than it was in January or last December.