Imagining the Catastrophic Consequences of a New War in Korea

27 09 2017

New War in Korea(Leonid Petrov for Daily Telegraph, 23 September 2017) The 1953 Armistice Agreement brought a sustainable halt to the Korean War, but has never ended it. Nor did it transform into a peace regime. During the last sixty four years the North and South Koreans live in the conditions of neither-war-nor-peace, which has certain advantages and downsides for both regimes separated by the Demilitarised Zone.

For the communist government in the North, the continuing war provides legitimacy and consolidates the masses around the Leader, who does not need to justify his power or explain the economic woes. For the export-oriented economy and steadily democratising society of South Korea, the continuing war against communism provides broad international sympathy, which is translated into the staunch security alliance and economic cooperation with the US. Any change (intentional or inadvertent) in the current balance of power or threat on the peninsula would lead to immediate re-adjustment or re-balancing of the equilibrium.

Military provocations of the North, does not matter how grave or audacious (i.e. 1968 guerrilla attack on the Blue House in Seoul, 1968 the USS Pueblo incident, 1976 Axe Murder Incident, 2002 naval clashes in the West Sea, the 2010 ROK corvette Cheonan sinking or Yeonpyeong Island shelling), have never led to the resumption of war. Similarly, peace and reconciliation-oriented initiatives (i.e. the 1972 Joint North-South Korean Communiqué, the 1991 Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, or the 2000 North–South Joint Declaration) inevitably end with a bitter disappointment. It seems that both Koreas are destined to live in the perpetual fear of war without really experiencing it.

Regional neighbours find this situation annoying but acceptable because the reunification of Korea can be potentially dangerous for some and advantageous for others. The Cold War mentality persists in Northeast Asia and dictates to its leaders to exercise caution in any decisions related to the Korean peninsula, which is known to be the regional balancer. After the WWII, Korea was divided by the great powers for a good reason – to separate the communist bloc from the capitalist democracies. Seventy years later, Korea still serves as a buffer zone which separates the economic interests of China and Russia-dominated Northeast Asia from the US-dominated Pacific Rim.

Should any of the actors start changing the equilibrium in Korea, the stabilising forces of reasoning and good judgement will inevitably return the situation to the original and steady balance of threat. Neither the UN intervention in Korea nor the Chinese counterattack in 1950 could help Koreans to reunify their country. Similarly, North Korea’s progress in building their nuclear and rocket deterrent (independently from what is promised by the alliance with China) will be counterbalanced by the return of US-owned nuclear weapons to South Korea or by the resumption of Seoul’s indigenous nuclear program, which was abandoned in the 1970s. When the balance of threat is restored, a temporary period of improved inter-Korean and DPRK-US relations will follow. Peaceful or hostile co-existence in Korea serves the interests of the ruling elites in both Koreas and benefits their foreign partners too.

Imagining the catastrophic consequences of a new war in Korea is pointless because everyone (in Pyongyang and Seoul, Washington and Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo) understands the risks associated with imminent nuclear retaliation. After the 2006 nuclear test North Korea is a fully-fledged nuclear power and what was previously possible (or at least hypothetically imaginable) with regards to a military action against Pyongyang is simply out of question these days. Whether Washington admits the reality or continues to produce the self-deceitful blandishments of a surgical strike against North Korea, a new hot war in Korea is not feasible simply because it serves no ones’ interest.

First, it would be suicidal for the aggressor and equally catastrophic for the victim of aggression. Second, when the nuclear dust settles the presumed victor would not know what to do with the trophy. The Kim dynasty would not survive another war for unification. Democratically elected government in Seoul would not know how to rule the third of its (newly acquired) population who is not familiar with the concept self-organisation. The cost of damaged physical infrastructure rebuilding will be dwarfed by the long-term expenditures required for maintaining social order in the conquered territories, re-education and lustration of the captured population. Survivors would prefer to seek refuge in a third country out of fear for revenge and reprisals. The exodus of Korean reunification is not something that regional neighbours are ready to welcome or absorb. It will take years and trillions of dollars before Korea can recover after the shock of violent unification.

Even a peaceful unification is likely to pose threat to Korea’s neighbours. The windfall of natural resources and economical labour force, if combined with advanced technologies and nationalism-driven investments, will help Korea outperform the industrial powerhouse of Japan and enter into open competition with China. A narrow but strategically located Russo-Korean border corridor will link the European markets and Siberian oil with Korean industrial producers. An underwater tunnel, once completed between Korean and Japan, will undermine the Sino-American duopoly and link the peninsula with the islands.

If the North and South are unified, the presence of US troops will be questioned not only in Korea but in Japan as well. US security alliance structures across the Pacific will crumble, followed by economic and technological withdrawal from the region. Even the new Cold War against China and Russia won’t help Washington to prevent the major rollback of American influence in Asia and the Pacific. Russia and China, as well, upon losing the common adversary will need to resume competition and power struggle for regional hegemony. Thus, the unification of Korea will open a new era of regional tensions, which nobody is really prepared to endure.

Korea today, however divided and problematic, is a capstone of regional peace and stability which must not be touched by political adventurists. The balance of Northeast Asian regional security architecture has been hinging on the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which proved to be sold and robust enough to survive many international conflicts. Even the acquisition of nuclear armaments by North Korea is not going to change the inter-Korean relations or Koreans’ relations with neighbours. However, if North Korea is deliberately targeted or attacked and destroyed, as has been threatened from the UN podium, that would trigger the processes far beyond of our imagination and control and inevitably lead to tectonic shifts in politics, security and economy of the region, which collectively produces and consumes approximately 19% of the global Gross Domestic Product. Surely, nobody will play with fire when so much is at stake.

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“Neither War Nor Peace” Regime in Korea in Untenable

21 06 2017

LP @bevvo14(ABC TV The World, 2017.06.20) Otto Warmbier has become the most recent victim of the continuing Korean War, where the most adamant participants (DPRK on one side and ROK and US on the other) still refuse to recognise each other and systematically threaten each other with preemptive strikes and nuclear retaliation.

Otto bore the brunt of unending hostility and continuing thirst for vengeance, which dominate politics on and around the Korean peninsula. His tragic death is a reminder to all of us that the “neither war nor peace” regime is unacceptable and is fraught with new dramas and victims. Tourism may help to heal the conflict, but it’s also most susceptible to political football and puts innocent or reckless people at a heightened risk. That’s why the zones of inter-Korean economic cooperation and tourism have been shut down one after another in the last decade. Unless the war is officially over, the Koreans, Americans and anyone involved in this conflict will be in real danger of arrest, abuse or even execution.





The Ball is in the US Court

19 04 2017

LP ABC TV 2017.04.17(ABC TV, 7:30 Report, 2017.04.17) US Vice President Mike Pence has warned the ‘era of strategic patience’ with North Korea is over after the country carried out a failed missile launch. The world now awaits the next move of the brutal North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

DONALD TRUMP, US PRESIDENT: North Korea’s a problem. The problem will be taken care of.

LT. GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The President has made clear that he will not accept the United States and its allies and partners in the region being under threat from this hostile regime.

LEONID PETROV, ANU COLLEGE OF ASIA AND THE PACIFIC: The whole population is determined to stand up and fight until the last bullet, until the last soldier.

STAN GRANT, REPORTER: North Korea is at war. Nothing has changed in more than 60 years. For this reclusive country, the Korean War has never ended.

LEONID PETROV: For North Korea, the state of war is their normal state of existence, and the population of North Korea is told every day that the war is going on, it never ended in 1953.

STAN GRANT: The drums are now beating louder. American warships are steaming near the Korean Coast. This past weekend, North Korea put on a display of its own firepower. It sends a deadly warning – it has the weapons and, if pushed, it could use them.

LEONID PETROV: The worst thing for the Kim regime is an attack, a regime change, occupation of North Korea, total chaos and the termination of the dynasty.

STAN GRANT: Leonid Petrov has spent a lifetime studying this hermit kingdom. He was in the capital, Pyongyang, just this year. It is, he says, a strange place, where time has stood still.

LEONID PETROV: North Koreans live in year 106.

STAN GRANT: 106?

LEONID PETROV: Yes, 106th year after the birth of their founding father. Kim Il-sung.

STAN GRANT: They’re not living in the 21st Century?

LEONID PETROV: They live in the year 106.

STAN GRANT: Survival of the regime now rests with the boy king, Kim Jong-un. He came to power before he was 30 years old. Like his father and grandfather, he is brutal, he executes writers, he rules his people with fear and he continues to amass a military that threatens nuclear apocalypse.

In a report for the United Nations, former Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby peered into this terrifying world of secret prisons, mass starvation and state-sanctioned violence.

MICHAEL KIRBY, UNITED NATIONS INVESTIGATOR: We found that there was widespread, prolonged and brutal wrongs done to the people of North Korea, many of which rose to the level of crimes against humanity.

STAN GRANT: So, could a regime that turns its guns on its own people launch an attack against the rest of us?

LEONID PETROV: If North Korea is attacked with the force which is similar to nuclear capability, nuclear attack, then North Koreans probably wouldn’t think twice before using the weapons of mass destruction.

STAN GRANT: Petrov fears an American attack that pushes North Korea into a corner. Kim Jong-un, he says, would immediately strike across the border into South Korea. Military strategists believe it could rain down half a million artillery rounds in just one hour.

LEONID PETROV: That would cause tens of thousands of human lives, at least, and massive panic, and also devastation to the infrastructure…

(Watch the full interview here… )





Isolated Kim Relies on Old North Korea Tensions Playbook

28 08 2015

One Korea_One enormous challenge (By Sam Kim and David Tweed, Bloomberg News, August 25, 2015) SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s military standoff against South Korea, with his threats to annihilate the government in Seoul, was not just about the loudspeakers blasting propaganda and K-pop tunes over the demilitarized zone.

Rather, the events that took tensions on the peninsula to their highest level since the aftermath of North Korea’s nuclear test in early 2013 reflected Kim’s efforts to control how ties between countries in North Asia are evolving.

The young dictator, who came to power in late 2011, is looking isolated. Kim’s nuclear ambitions and his unwillingness to take guidance from Beijing have irritated China and strained ties with Pyongyang’s traditional ally. South Korean President Park Geun-hye enjoys a rapport with President Xi Jinping and is inching toward improved ties with Japan.

Faced with a dilapidated economy and drought at home, and potentially pressured by senior officers in his military to show some mettle, Kim resorted to an old North Korean playbook — pick a fight to force concessions from South Korea on trade and aid. It’s also a warning to Park against taking North Korea lightly in her dealings with China, Japan and the United States, all of whom have urged Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons program.

“This is more than a loudspeaker issue,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “In the end this could be Kim’s outreach strategy. Maybe they think the South hasn’t been responding enough, so provoked a crisis to get to this stage.”

The stakes are high for Kim. He has a series of upcoming anniversaries where he must prove he’s worthy of commanding North Korea’s 1.2 million troops. Economic woes facing his 24 million people are unlikely to ease soon, while North Korea’s increasingly porous border with China means ordinary people have greater access to electronics and news of life outside the reclusive country.

In the end, both leaders gave some ground after days of high-level talks among negotiators at a border village — and both can probably claim a victory. The regime in Pyongyang agreed to lift its “semi-state of war” and expressed regret over landmine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers, while Seoul said it’d stop the propaganda broadcasts.

Risks remain, and Kim faces the challenge of a more strident Park in the face of any further provocations.

“The question is will the dialog stick? That will be harder because there is going to be some kind of crisis that tests this in relative short order,” said John Delury, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, citing the potential for skirmishes on the maritime border or over the demarcation line.

Since Park’s government said last week it traded fire with North Korea across the demilitarized zone, her approval rating has risen. Even as the tensions roiled South Korea’s financial markets she said Monday she would not stop pressuring Kim.

“The broadcasts play to particular parts of her support base, particularly the Christian right and the nationalist right,” said Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a professor of Asian affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra, of the South Korean leader who passes the half-way mark of her five-year tenure on Tuesday.

On the same day Kim marks the day of “Songun,” a military-first philosophy chartered by his late father Kim Jong Il. In less than two months he’ll celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party as he seeks to promote himself as a shrewd politician and tough military tactician.

“This is a very important commemorative year for Kim Jong Un,” Lee Sung-yoon, a professor of Korean studies at Tufts University, said by email. “The young Kim has a compelling need to mark it with a bang, as he did in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s birthday, when North Korea was miraculously to become a powerful and prosperous country.”

Kim can’t afford to look weak. Since taking power he’s conducted a series of purges to root out potential threats.

“His spate of high-level executions shows a high degree of frustration that his policies are not being implemented to his satisfaction,” Patrick Cronin, senior adviser for the Asia- Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said in an email.

The country is suffering chronic food shortages. North Korea said earlier this year it had been in the worst drought in a hundred years and the United Nations said in June that was worsening food-security concerns in the country.

“They’re facing a poor harvest, so this could be a way to divert people’s attention to patriotism and jingoism that wouldn’t be necessary had there been plentiful crops,” said Leonid Petrov, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra. “Kim knows he cannot offer much to his population other than superficial window dressing. He has to use the same methods his father and grandfather did.”





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.





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.





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”