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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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… )





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”





The Korean War and East Asia

28 06 2012

(Leonid Petrov, East Asia Forum, June 27th, 2012)

Koreans commemorated the tragic beginning of the Korean War (1950–53) on 25 June. What began as a civil war for unification soon escalated into an international war — a protracted Cold War conflict and a surrogate World War III. After 62 years and despite an Armistice Agreement, the conflict shows no signs of ending.

The Korean Peninsula’s geopolitical importance and its alliance policies are at the core of the problem. Surrounded by China, Japan and the Russian Far East, Korea is at the centre of Asia. And so, for centuries, policy makers and generals from the neighbouring regional powers have recognised Korea’s strategic importance in the region, prioritising its protection from potential enemies.

Relations with its neighbours have typically been unfavourable for Korea. Minor political events on the peninsula have long attracted attention and hasty international reactions. For this reason, Korea has an exceptionally rich and dramatic political history, including four ‘Korean Wars’ since the 16th century.

The Imjin War (1592–98) was ‘the first Korean War’, setting the tone for future relations between the combatants. The Imjin war was precipitated by a samurai warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who intended to conquer China and dominate Asia. He set out to cross into China through the Korean Peninsula, but when Korea refused to give free passage to Japanese troops, it became a target for Hideyoshi’s marauding hordes. The Japanese marched to the Sino–Korean border before China’s Ming dynasty agreed to help Chosun Korea block Hideyoshi’s march. The combined Ming and Chosun armies finally pushed the Japanese out of the peninsula but the war tarnished the reputation of Korea’s powerful ally and destroyed much of Seoul and other parts of Korea.

The ‘second Korean War’ was, in fact, the first Sino–Japanese War (1894–95), which saw Korea becoming the primary subject of contention once again. As a newly rising power, Japan wished to protect its own interests and security by either annexing Korea or by ensuring Korea’s independence from other competitors. The Great Korean Empire was founded in 1897, in the aftermath of this ‘second Korean War’. But independent status of the country was not to last: piecemeal domestic reforms and sluggish administration made Korea an easy target for imperialist contest.

Russia’s tenuous foothold on Korea was challenged during the Russo–Japanese War (1904–05). Following this ‘third Korean War’ Japan gradually took control of Korean affairs, until 1910, when Korea formally became a Japanese colony. As such, it was forced to serve the economic and military needs of the expanding Japanese empire, but not without opposition: in the subsequent 35 years radical Korean groups continued to resist the Japanese occupation in Manchuria and China, while Korean intellectuals fought a battle against cultural obliteration at home.

The fall of Japan at the end of World War II did not lead to Korea being granted its independence immediately. The Soviet Union and the US, the allied powers who had liberated the country, believed Koreans were not yet ready for self-governance and divided the peninsula into two temporary zones of occupation. By that time the Cold War was already emerging, and this ‘temporary’ division of Korea became increasingly consolidated and ideologically cemented. This led to the creation of two antagonistic states in 1948: the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The conditions for a civil conflict were ripe, and as soon as US and Russian occupying forces left the country, a new Korean war broke out.

The ‘fourth Korean War’, which started on 25 June 1950 with a surprise attack from the North against the South, was an attempt to unify the country, but soon escalated to the level of a proxy World War III, involving some 20 countries. After three years of fratricidal conflict, and despite the strong opposition from the ROK President Rhee Syngman, delegates from North Korea, China and the United Nations Command signed the Armistice Agreement on 27 July 1953. Six decades later, a peace treaty has not yet been formalised.

The first step toward ending this fourth Korean War would be for the regional neighbours to formally recognise the two Korean states. Both China and Russia have already established diplomatic and trade relations with South Korea, while continuing to provide economic aid and security assurances to keep North Korea afloat. It is now time for the US and Japan to recognise North Korea, assuage its security concerns and lift economic sanctions.

In the meantime, the Korean Peninsula remains a bone of contention among its powerful neighbours. The old system of block alliances persists in the multipolar world of the 21st century, and this is keeping Korea divided. Only when Korea frees itself from the obligations of its allies will East Asia achieve peace and stability.





Korean War comes back to life

9 09 2010

(SBS Film, 06 September 2010) Cinema depicting the Korean War can help raise awareness of the conflict and offer clues to how ultimately Korea might be unified, according to Leonid Petrov, an organiser of the Korean War in Film screening and discussion program.

The lion’s share of Australia’s Korean community is from the South; with only about 10,000 of a 125,000-strong Korean population having their roots in North Korea. As such, within the local Korean community, perspectives on the 1950-1953 war are largely one-sided.

Petrov, who lectures in Korean Studies at the University of Sydney, says many Koreans living in Australia have a somewhat limited knowledge of their nation’s history. Young South Koreans are particularly curious about their past, particularly as North Korea remains isolated to this day, whilst the North-South struggle for State legitimacy continues. Here, Petrov believes “the art of film plays a role”.

Organised in conjunction with the Korean Media and Culture Club (KMCC), the Korean War in Film event is taking place over three successive Wednesdays this month, following an earlier round of screenings held in May 2010.

The following three films are being shown:

Kang Je-gyu’s The Brotherhood of War (2004), the highest-grossing Korean film of all time upon its theatrical release, revolving around two brothers who are drafted into the army by force during the outbreak of the Korean War.

Lewis Milestone-directed US film Pork Chop Hill (1959), which depicts the fierce battle fought between the US Army and Chinese and Korean Communist forces at the tail end of the War.

Kim Song Gyo’s On the Railway (1960), a North Korean classic set during the autumn of 1950, when a locomotive engineer is attempting to evacuate precious machinery and equipment during the North Korean retreat.

“Until the early ‘90s, the Korean film industry was suppressed, there were only about a dozen films a year and they were underfunded,” Petrov explains. “They managed somehow to produce good quality films, but could not compete with Hollywood blockbusters.

“Then the legislation changed and quotas became favourable to local films. More investment came and venture capital streamed into the industry. Films started to be exported, along with Korean songs, fashion design, computer games, industrial design etc.”

Despite this cultural gain, Petrov stresses that a “Cold War structure” remains in the region; not only in Korea but in China and Taiwan and Japan and Russia.

Locally, the Korean community is very tight-knit, with organised cultural activity revolving around Korean businesses, Korean newspapers and, especially, the Korean church.

Founded by fellow Korean Studies lecturer, Ki-sung Kwak, the KMCC is an informal group that aims to promote Korean culture and foster social interaction through social activities including seminars and film screenings.

“We not only wish to show films but also have some sort of activity,” Ki-Sung explains. “We would like to have performances by Korean musicians and artists living in Sydney and other Australian cities, and we plan to invite people from the local community to talk about issues, such as the relationship between the North and South.”

Less active in recent times, the club held a film festival event in both 2006 and 2007, which received generous support from the Korean consulate. Ki-sung admits it is a challenge to refresh club membership amongst the student base.

“I really want the club to be very active but when our members graduate we have to encourage new members to join the club,” he says. “What I actually plan to do is ask some student representatives to actually run the club.”

Aside from students moving on, the proliferation of Korean product available on DVD presents a further challenge to the club.

“When we first showed a Korean film here, it was back in 1999,” Ki-sung says. “DVD was not so popular, and we attracted about 300 people from the community.

“Also, with the internet, people can now easily download movies. The Korean government is planning to develop technology to download a two-hour film in less than 10 seconds, so that’s quite attractive.”

The Korean Media and Culture Club screenings are held at the University of Sydney. For information visit http://sydney.edu.au/arts/korean/societies/index.shtml