Korean Peninsula Situation Report (II)

Korean Peninsula Situation Report (II)

Part I

US and ROK Trigger Military Preparations

Since the end of February 2014 Washington and Seoul started to exert pressure on Pyongyang, for instance they launched a series of large-scale military exercises (Key Resolve and Foal Eagle) conducted one by one in a row. The allies tried to paint their activities as actions of defensive nature. They even promised to limit the forces participating in the events and abstain from using the main irritants – strategic bombers and nuclear submarines.  It all turned to be otherwise.  The number of troops taking part in this year’s Ssang Yong (Double Dragon) exercise held March 27 through April 7 was unprecedented at least since 1993.  Almost 10,000 U.S. troops joined the South Korean military in the peninsula’s largest joint amphibious landing drill.  The scenario envisaged landing forces to march straight to Pyongyang and seize the North Korean capital… The US strategic forces participated in the training event raising the concern of North Korea which started to take reciprocal measures to counter the deployment of large contingent of forces in the area to the south of the demilitarized zone. It staged the exercises of its own. The scenario envisioned repelling an attack from the Sea of Japan using MLRS and launching short and medium range missiles (over 80).  The United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) has banned the  launches of North Korean ballistic missiles (North Korea refuses to comply with the resolutions imposing the bans). An UNSC session was immediately called to react to the use of Nodong missiles. The Pentagon took advantage of the occasion to deploy more Aegis-equipped ships to the region.  The United States and the allies stick to the true-and-tried pattern of actions which envisions holding large-scale exercises that could be seen by another state (North Korea in the given case) as a direct threat to its security.  When  North Korea takes action in response, the US and South Korea accuse it of staging military provocations, so they exert more pressure on Pyongyang  and expand military presence in the region.  North Koreans offer their own vision of the tactics used by the US. The United States says it is conducting a regular joint exercise of “defensive nature” in another country and targeted at seizing Pyongyang. At the same time, the other side’s regular exercises held on its own territory are labelled as provocative actions. This logic is hard to understand. 

As a result, the events of 2014 are exacerbating tensions. It’s not as bad as it was in 2013, but it is clearly taking a turn for the worse. For instance, shootings that took place in the area of disputed waters in the Yellow Sea along the northern division line. The northerners gave a warning and fired 500 shots. Some of artillery shells fell into the waters South Korea believes to be its own, so it responded firing 300 shots.  Thanks God, there were no casualties.

Experts are eager to see the joint exercises wind up in April. With guns silenced it’s easier to re-start the bilateral dialogue that started rather successfully in February.   The South Korean President held out an olive branch to the former nemesis in the form of proposals she put on the table in Dresden on March 28, 2014. It was hardly a success.  The time to come forward with the “new” proposals on the unification of the two Koreas was wrong – the military exercises were in full swing.  Experts believe the proposals are not new really but rather reformed old ones which had already been rejected by the North: first, unilateral disarmament of North Korea and then large-scale aid from the southern neighbor.  It’s a veiled attempt to reach unification on the conditions of the South Korea aimed at devouring North Korea. No wonder,    North Koreans flatly rejected the so-called initiative.   

One way or another, the hopes for re-launching the constructive dialogue between the two Koreas have not materialized. They were doomed to failure. Right after staging the two exercises mentioned above, Washington and Seoul launched new training events. It has never happened before. This time the drills were of unprecedented scale involving hundreds of aircraft. 

Many observers were under the impression growing into confidence that the United States was provoking North Korea on purpose to make tensions on the peninsula rise further and thus narrow the window of opportunity for the inter-Korean dialogue. The US-South Korea alliance has chosen the policy of muscle flexing. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to deviate from usual diplomatic balanced approaches and put it straight in the statements issued on March 31 and April 10, 2014 saying that these provocative actions are turning into the main source of tension in the Korean peninsula…It was emphasized that the aggravation of the situation always coincides with the large-scale exercises of the United States and South Korea. For instance, the March 31 statement says, “It cannot be disregarded that periodic aggravation in this region occurs at the same time as the annual large-scale military training exercises of the United States and the Republic of Korea. We have commented several times that it is inadmissible to have excessive military activities in North-East Asia, all the more so when there are provocative displays of mock bombings using strategic bombers, exercises of landing operations to seize some “administrative centers” of foreign states and so on. We urgently appeal to all the interested parties to demonstrate maximum restraint, avoid any statements or actions, which lead to further deterioration and escalation of the situation in the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding area.” The April 10 statement stresses that,“Trends in a build-up of joint military actions by the United States and the Republic of Korea, in the Korean Peninsula, cannot but cause concern – especially in conditions, when traces of the reduction of tensions are replaced by the mutual aggravation of rhetoric and intensification of confrontation. The large-scale exercise Foal Eagle (which will be conducted up to the 18 April) has not yet been completed, but Seoul and Washington are organizing new air exercises using a record amount of aviation equipment, as is being announced. It is to be noted that during these exercises they will develop accurate firing at targets located in the territory of the expected enemy and ensure supplies to subversive groups behind enemy lines. We have pointed out many times that the build-up of military activities in North-East Asia, going beyond the framework of existing threats, not only does not contribute to the revival of the situation, but also will incur serious consequences for peace and stability in the region. We will repeat yet again: let us stop making stakes at forceful variants of settlement of the problems in the Korean Peninsula and start forming multilateral security mechanisms in NEA. All the issues in question must be resolved using political and diplomatic means only, through consultations and negotiations.”

It’s easy to see that the wording is drastically different from what it was in 2013.

Somehow it makes one come to conclusion that the situation in 2014 may develop according to two scenarios: it could be either a confrontation or a dialogue.  The prerequisites for re-starting the constructive dialogue between the South and the North launched in February remain.  If Pyongyang preserves patience, restraint and avoids provocations and challenges it has to face at present, including abstaining from further nuclear tests mentioned in its official statements, then there will be more chances to turn the tide and re-direct the events into a more positive direction. Itwillimprovetheinter-Koreanrelations.   

Along with that, there are more factors threatening a spark of confrontation this year.  Washington displays its reluctance to see the bilateral relations improve because it will complicate the justification of US military presence in the southern part of peninsula. As soon as positive trends emerge in the dialogue between Pyongyang and Seoul, the military training activities get in full swing with one event immediately followed by another. It’s not excluded that the overall deterioration of US-Russian relations against the background of the crisis in Ukraine will negatively affect the situation in the region. The prospects for détente and cooperation between the West and North Korea are at least dim for the near future.