The round of threats is taking on a more virulent tone than ever. On March 7, Pyongyang threatened to launch «preemptive» nuclear strikes on the United States. On March 12, North Korea threatened to «wipe out» an island in the South as tension on the Korean Peninsula has risen to its highest level for years. It announced that the armistice agreement has been nullified, Making good on its threats, Pyongyang appeared to have suspended the Red Cross hotline with South Korea, an emergency link for quick, two-way communication used by the countries in the absence of official diplomatic channels. On March 30 North Korea declared that it is in a «state of war» with South Korea. It warned that any provocation by Seoul and Washington will trigger an all-out nuclear war. «The long-standing situation of the Korean Peninsula being neither at peace nor at war is finally over», a statement said. On March 26, North Korea said that its military should be prepared to attack «All US military bases in the Asia-Pacific region, including the US mainland, Hawaii, and Guam» and South Korea». The North Korean state media announced that the country was going into a «No. 1 combat readiness status», the highest state of alert. The statement said the participation of US B-52 and B-2 nuclear-capable bombers in South Korea as part of an ongoing annual military drill was viewed as intimidation. On March 31, US air force F-22 stealth fighter jets were flown from a base in Japan to South Korea to join the exercises too. The announcement came days after South Korea and the US signed a new military agreement in response to what they called provocations by Pyongyang. The excessively strident rhetoric out of Pyongyang follows the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094 that imposed additional sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.
On March 11, Seoul and Washington launched a week-long annual joint military maneuver near the Korean Peninsula despite warnings from Pyongyang. The event involved 10,000 South Korean soldiers and about 3,000 US troops.
Like if adding fuel to the fire, there is another exercise announced by the US and South Korea. Nearly 10,000 U.S. soldiers, most from outside South Korea, alongside a larger number of South Korean ground, naval and air force personnel, participate in the annual Foal Eagle joint military exercise, which runs through April 30th. North Korea's reserve forces have been in a state of mobilization for over three months since the country’s rocket launch back in December.
North Korea’s stance
On March 31 North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presided over a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. Kim and top party officials adopted a declaration calling nuclear weapons the «the nation's life» and an important component of its defence, an asset that wouldn't be traded even for «billions of dollars». The meeting decided that the country's possession of nuclear weapons «should be fixed by law», according to the official KCNA news agency. It also set a «new strategic line» calling for building both a stronger economy and nuclear arsenal. The nuclear armed forces «should be expanded and beefed up qualitatively and quantitatively until the denuclearization of the world is realized», it added. The meeting declared the decision to push for economic construction and nuclear development simultaneously with efforts to develop agriculture and light industry and to stabilize living standards. «The country's economy should be shifted into knowledge-based economy and the foreign trade be made multilateral and diversified and investment be widely introduced», the news agency reported.
Efforts should be made to develop space science and technology, including the launching of more advanced satellites. North Korea said economic development and an expansion of the nuclear program could take place in parallel because a growing nuclear deterrent could allow the North to limit military spending and put more resources into the agricultural sector and light industries to improve people’s lives.
The next day, on April 1, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gathered legislators for an annual spring parliamentary session that followed a ruling party declaration that nuclear bomb building and a stronger economy were the nation's top priorities. The meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly follows near-daily threats from Pyongyang for weeks, including vows of nuclear strikes on South Korea and the U.S. The plenary statement also called for strengthening the economy, which Kim has put an emphasis on in his public statements since taking power. The UN says two-thirds of the country's 24 million people face regular food shortages.
Last April, North Korea identified itself as a nuclear power when it revised its Constitution. After the United Nations Security Council imposed more sanctions to punish it for launching a long-range rocket in December and its third nuclear test in February, it said it would no longer attend talks on dismantling its nuclear program.
As one can see, the events testify to the fact that North Korea seems to have no intention of giving up its nuclear arms, while the need for economic reform tops the agenda.
Talking about the need for economic reform, it should be noted that the North Korea’s armed forces remain on high alert throughout consuming a great deal of scarce resources. For instance, for hundreds of aircraft sorties recently. Industry is diverting production from civilian goods to military. The mobilization of soldiers also takes its toll. The army in North Korea is involved in numerous economic enterprises, including construction, and precious man hours are diverted to maintaining stand-by posture. No doubt it all creates a heavy burden, an aspect to take into account assessing the overall situation. In any case, the 103d world economy with the GDP just around $40 billion (which is about $1,800 per capita making it one of the poorest countries in the world) has once again commanded the world’s attention.
No doubt North Korea is testing the new South Korean president, who took the office this February. After the North blew up the South Korean navy ship the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors in 2010, a response may be more resolute than before back in history. Another specific feature of the current situation is the fact that North Korea crossed a major technology threshold in December, when it successfully launched a satellite into orbit or, in other words, managed to put the payload into orbit with ballistic missile launch technology that is clearly designed to reach the United States. More to it, Pyongyang conducted a third nuclear test in February, which appears to have been more successful than the previous two. Moreover, the North sells the weapons system it has developed to other countries, like Iran and Pakistan. At present North Korea can threaten South Korea and parts of Japan with its conventional missiles and its conventional military. The North can strike Seoul with 500,000 rounds of artillery in the first hour of a conflict. These are the factors to reckon with.
Threats and reality
North Korea’s armed forces boast around 1.1m active-duty personnel and some 4.7m reserves. The army inventory includes between 4,500 and 5,400 tanks, over 1300 armored personnel vehicles, 12.7 artillery pieces and mortars, around 1.1 thousand multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). The Air Force numbers about 1200 aircraft, including 650 combat planes. All aircraft are extremely obsolete, joining the service back in 1950s. The navy has some 708 vessels including 3 frigates and 70 submarines. The ant-ship missiles are Styx class developed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. 122, 130, 152-mm artillery pieces guard the shore. The Navy submarines could be effective in operations such as mining and insertion of special forces. Mines around the Korean Peninsula would pose a threat to potential enemy. The Korean People's Strategic Rocket Forces inventory boasts around one thousand rockets, including: Nodong – 1000 km, Taepodong-1 – 2200 km, Musudan – 4000 km, Taeponong-2 – 7000 km ground based systems. The service unsuccessfully tested a Taepodong-2 (or rockets with related technology) missile in 2006, 2009 and 2012. But it conducted an apparently successful launch of a three-stage rocket on 12 December 2012. North Korea has enough plutonium for about 5-10 nuclear munitions. Around one-half of North Korea’s major weapons were designed in the 1960s; the other half is even older. The armed forces face shortages of spare parts, fuel and poor maintenance, some weaponry will not be functional. It is unknown if North Korea has chemical tipped surface-to-surface rockets.
On February 12 North Korea conducted a successful underground test at the Punggye-ri nuclear site (the north-western part of the country). It was a third test after two failures conducted in strict defiance of UN resolutions. The move brings it closer to developing a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a long-range missile and possibly bringing Guam, the Hawaii and even the US West Coast within the striking range.
Glimpse of hope
Meanwhile, an inter-Korea joint industrial complex, which lies inside North Korea, was operating normally. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, which lies 10 kilometers (six miles) inside North Korea, was built by the South in 2004 as a symbol of cross-border cooperation. Around 53,000 North Koreans work at plants for 120 South Korean firms at the complex, which serves as a crucial source of hard currency for the impoverished state. Using North Korea's cheap labor, the Kaesong complex produced $470 million US worth of goods last year. No military action on the part of North Korea is possible till the facility functions. Perhaps economic advantage it gives will outweigh the predisposition to military solution…
South Korea’s response
South Korea has promised a «strong response» to what it calls North Korean aggression. Speaking to defence officials on Monday, President Park Geun-hye said that she took the series of threats from Pyongyang «very seriously». South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se is expected to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry this week in Washington to discuss North Korea, according to Yonhap news agency reports. South Korea's military has been authorized to retaliate immediately in the event of an attack or serious provocation from North Korea. Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president, said, «If any provocations happen against our people and our country, it should respond powerfully in the early stages without having any political considerations». On April 1 South Korea’s defense ministry unveiled a new contingency plan of «active deterrence» that allows its military to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea if the North shows signs of an imminent nuclear or missile attack on the South. In a briefing to Park, Defense Minister Kim said the military is mapping out «an active deterrence and will build an attack system to swiftly neutralize North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, while significantly improving our military’s capability of surveillance and reconnaissance». To achieve the goal, the ministry will speed up the deployment of a «kill chain» system capable of detecting, targeting and destroying North Korean nuclear and missile targets, ministry officials said. The new contingency plan will be formalized in October this year, when defense chiefs of South Korea and the U.S. hold annual security talks, ministry officials said. South Korea will also speed up building and deploying South Korea’s own missile defense system named «Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD)» at an earlier date than scheduled. The weapon is designed to intercept hostile missiles or combat aircrafts at an altitude of 10-30 kilometers. To enhance its reconnaissance capability, South Korea will make efforts for a speedy deployment of US – made Global Hawk intelligence gathering drones and put at least two military spy satellites into orbit by 2021, according to the ministry. Last December, the U.S. government informed Congress of a plan to sell four Global Hawk drones to South Korea. The deal under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program would be worth up to US$1.2 billion. The voices are raised calling for developing nuclear weapons.
Russia makes its stance known
The Russian Foreign Ministry ambassador at large, Grigoriy Logvinov, told Interfax News on March 30 that although he hoped all sides would «show restraint», Russia would not «remain uninvolved under conditions when tension is fomenting near our eastern borders». «We hope that all parties will exercise maximum responsibility and restraint and no one will cross the point of no return», he told the agency. With North Korea placing its ballistic arsenal on high alert targeting American bases and the US tenaciously increasing military presence in the region, the whole situation risks «spiraling out of control» soon, warned Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Both North Korea and the US bear responsibility for the recent substantial escalation of tensions, Lavrov said on March 29, calling on «all sides not to flex their military muscle». «We are concerned that alongside the adequate, collective reaction of the UN Security Council, unilateral action is being taken around North Korea that is increasing military activity», Lavrov added, apparently referring to US plans to boost missile defense against the North, the joint US-South Korean contingency plan in the event of an attack as well as their recent military drills. The Foreign Minister warned of a «vicious circle» and told all sides to avoid unilateral action.
* * *
Rhetoric is not action. A direct attack on U.S. forces or the allies seems unlikely. Still said the rising tensions increase the risk of some form of limited armed conflict. Cutting off its military phone line with the South is a wrong step greatly increasing a chance of a spark starting a fire nobody really wants.
North Korea continues to make technological advances, something that gives the United States, South Korea and Japan and other countries an argument to justify joining the regional arms race and US ballistic missile defense efforts. Looks like it’s not military exercises but rather speedy coordinated international effort what is needed to prevent the WWI kind of scenario. Putting the problem on the back burner is no longer an option, and the responsibility for solving the Korean issue rests with all the members of the six-party settlement process.