John Nilsson-Wright
Head, Asia Programme

Latest: North Korea's Artful Long Game, Prospect, April 2013

The announcement by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that it has entered into a 'state of war' with both the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK), together with its claim that it is prepared, if threatened directly, to attack US targets in Guam, Hawaii and the continental United States have raised fears that the peninsula may be on the brink of a full-blown military conflict. 

Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric follows on from the North’s unilateral abrogation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement that suspended the Korean War, the formal abandonment of a series of number of key bilateral accords with South Korea from the early 1990s, and the severing of a number of bilateral military communication hotlines intended to minimize the risk of North-South hostilities.

Playing to the home crowd

Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s 29-year-old, inexperienced leader, may be seeking to bolster his legitimacy and power-base at home by mobilizing public opinion in the face of a putative foreign threat that he and his senior advisers have intentionally exaggerated. 

Pyongyang is also likely to have been irritated by the new, more sharply focused sanctions embodied in UN Security Council resolution 2094, as well as US-ROK coordinated military moves to strengthen the US-ROK military alliance’s deterrent capabilities. A part of the regular Foal Eagle exercises that run from March 1 to April 30, these have included drills off the East and South coasts of the peninsula by the USS Cheyenne, a US nuclear attack submarine; the deployment of B-52 and B2 stealth bombers to the region; and most recently the despatch on March 31 of F22 stealth fighter planes from Japan to South Korea.

Managing North Korea

Alliance coordination has involved very public, high-profile deployments of key strategic assets to convey unambiguously the message that the US and South Korea will respond swiftly and with potentially devastating force if the North is unwise enough to risk any military provocation comparable to the past. For example, previous provocations that brought the peninsula close to war in 2010 were the sinking of the Cheonan, (a South Korea corvette), and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island. 

As a means of bolstering deterrence, such clarity is axiomatic, but it carries with it the increased possibility of conflict through accident rather than design, particularly when the militaries on either side of the DMZ are at a heightened state of mobilization. 

Unusually tough rhetoric from the government of South Korea’s newly elected President Park Geun-hye, threatening a disproportionate response to any hostile North Korean actions, has intensified international fears that the situation is becoming unstable. The ROK’s Ministry of Defence announced a new 'active defence' plan, authorizing pre-emptive military action if it believes a North Korean nuclear or missile attack is imminent. This message, coupled with President Park’s April 1 public statement in which she seemingly provided the ROK military with discretion to respond exclusively on a military basis, free from any political concerns, suggests that the tripwire for military action may be being stretched ever tighter. This follows on from a statement by the South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin hinting that any alliance response to the North would involve the use of out-of-region US military assets, beyond existing peninsula-based resources. This suggests a full-blown push to remove the government in Pyongyang, rather than a limited and carefully calibrated effort to deal with a North Korean provocation.

Notwithstanding these fears, there are subtle indicators that both sides to the conflict may be attempting to step back from a pattern of escalating brinkmanship. The North’s language while hostile and provocative, appears to be conditional, threatening total destruction of the South but only if the US and the ROK attack first. Moreover, the very apocalyptic nature of Pyongyang’s boast, threatening 'all-out…nuclear war' that will turn South Korea’s military and political institutions instantly into 'ashes', suggests that the North is not serious about precipitating a conflict that it must surely know would be tantamount to national suicide.

Economic considerations

The North may be hedging; hunkering down strategically by hanging on to its nuclear assets as its key defensive capability, while flirting with the idea of greater economic openness. That is one message that emerged from the plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party (KWP) on March 31. The gathering produced a statement by the leadership committing it to upgrade the country’s nuclear arsenal 'qualitatively and quantitatively', but also pledging to strengthen the country's economy, especially its light-industry and agricultural sectors, by promoting diversified investment and increased 'multilateral' trade. It would be premature to assume that Pyongyang is about to throw open its doors to foreign trade, (beyond its existing economic relationship with China), and equally premature to assume that the world business community is about to rush forward to invest in the North. However, the language of the KWP meeting and the full appointment to the Politburo of Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju, a relatively reform minded official, may be a modest hint of some policy softening.

Economic progress remains critically important for Kim Jong-un, and for this reason, the key strategic bellwether on the peninsula remains the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just north of the DMZ. While it remains open, the likelihood of actual hostilities is low. Hosted and facilitated by some 123 South Korean companies, Kaesong produces revenue for the DPRK of approximately $87 million and directly employs some 53,000 North Koreans, as well as contributing to the livelihood and wellbeing of a further 250,000 North Korean family dependents. Direct provision of water and ancillary trade from the complex also helps to support a wider informal economy in the area surrounding the complex in the North. Pyongyang has warned it may close down Kaesong, but this seems more bluff than credible threat and for now, business representatives from the South continue to travel freely and regularly across the border. It seems implausible that the North would jeopardize the substantial revenue it enjoys from the complex, or risk provoking local popular disaffection at a time when Kim Jong-un, judging from his high profile public appearances, appears keen to secure a sympathetic reception from the North Korean public.

Seoul's new focus

South Korea may also provide an important diplomatic escape route from the current strategic cul-de-sac. President Park, alongside her efforts to bolster deterrence and appear resolute in the face of the North’s provocations, is pursuing a twin-track approach as part of her 'trust politik' initiative. She has unconditionally offered the North important humanitarian assistance, and her Minister of Unification has talked publicly about the importance of expanding the Kaesong initiative. Intriguingly, this ameliorative approach has won Park modest plaudits from progressive politicians – not a constituency known for its sympathy for the daughter of South Korea’s former authoritarian leader, Park Chung-hee. Conversely, Seoul’s conservative media has been critical of the new president, for her arguably mixed messages to the North as well as a confused transition process that has seen the new administration falter badly in securing approval of some key cabinet appointments.

It is too early to say whether this apparent balancing between toughness and accommodation will work. But the merits of such calibration are likely to be a key subject for discussion in imminent bilateral meetings between the ROK and US governments – both ROK Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se's April 2 visit to Washington, DC, and US Secretary of State Kerry’s forthcoming visit to Seoul and the region from April 11.

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