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Is Kim Jong-un planning for war?

By Dr Rajaram Panda
March 07, 2017 10:46 IST
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Will the unpredictable North Korean leader provoke conflict on the Korean peninsula?
Dr Rajaram Panda checks out the possibilities.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un. Photograph: Korean Central News Agency/Reuters

Tensions in the Korean peninsula remain high because of North Korea's nuclear tests, missile launches and constant threats to attack both its southern neighbour and the US.

As the US and South Korean militaries participated in exercise Foal Eagle 2017 on March 1, North Korea expectedly reacted by firing four banned ballistic missiles on March 6 that flew about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) and reached a height of 260 km (160 miles), with three of them landing in Japan's exclusive economic zone.

Pyongyang has always insisted that the military drills are invasion rehearsal by South Korea and the US. South Korea's military, however, said the missiles were unlikely to have been intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which can reach the US.

In recent months, North Korea has staged a series of missile test launches of various ranges, including a new intermediate range missile in February.

Pyongyang has always justified its actions, saying that these are insurance against hostility and possible attack by the US and South Korea against North Korea.

Though Japan is not involved in the military drills, it felt the heat as three of the four missiles landed in the 200 nautical mile offshore area, as close as 300 (190 miles) from Japan's northwest coast, where Japan has sovereign rights to explore and exploit resources, leading Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to term Pyongyang's act as 'a new kind of threat.'

South Korea's acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn too condemned the launches as a direct challenge to the international community and said Seoul would swiftly deploy a US anti-missile defence system despite angry objections from China.

According to South Korea's joint chief of staff, the missile launch site was Tongchang-ri in the North Pyongan province, home of North Korea's Seohae satellite station where the prohibited long range launches were conducted in recent years.

The US state department strongly condemned the ballistic missile launches, calling it a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions explicitly prohibiting North Korea's launches using ballistic missile technology.

Tension in the Korean peninsula continue to remain high since the Korean War of 1950-1953, that ended with an armistice and without a peace treaty and therefore both the South and North are in a technical state of war.

Both South Korea and the US claim the military drills are routine and defensive in nature. The exercise involves a series of joint and combined ground, air, naval and special operations field exercises and designed in the spirit of the US-South Korean mutual defence treaty of 1953.

This year, about 3,600 service members were deployed to join the 28,000 US troops already based in South Korea for the annual exercise, which will run through April 30.

The drills have a 40-year tradition and have been carried out regularly, openly and transparently.

From the US perspective, it is a demonstration of its commitment to the alliance and justifies Foal Eagle 2017 as designed to increase readiness to defend South Korea to protect the region and to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula.

In accordance with its treaty obligations to its two East Asian allies, the US stations 28,500 troops in South Korean bases and another 50,000 in Japanese bases, as a deterrent against potential aggression from North Korea.

The exercise in 2016 involved about 17,000 US troops, including strategic naval vessels and air force assets, and more than 300,000 South Korean marines.

This year, the US key strategic assets include the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, F-35 aircraft, and B-1B and B-52 bombers for the exercises.

Participation in the joint exercises is known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.

The South Korean people are scared with the war mongering rhetoric from both sides. They want peace and tranquillity in the peninsula.

If war breaks out, the South Korean economy will be in ruins and South Koreans do not want to lose the benefit of economic prosperity.

Scores of protestors staged a rally outside the US embassy in Seoul on the day the joint military commenced, expressing opposition to the war games and emphasising that the drills would 'bring the peninsula sharply closer to the brink of a nuclear war.'

North Korea is always uncomfortable with such drills and responds with expensive deployments and drills of its own, which is taxing for an impoverished nation.

Pyongyang warned that its response this year would be the toughest, which was reflected with the firing of four missiles into the Sea of Japan in retaliation and therefore sent out a warning.

US Defence Secretary General James Mattis assured his South Korean counterpart Han Min-Koo of the US commitment to defend its ally. Both the US and South Korea have agreed to station the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense -- THAAD -- system to neutralise any missiles coming from the North.

South Korea is already at an advance stage to make it operational. The urgency to deploy the THAAD battery was because of the serious threat highlighted by North Korea's February 12 ballistic missile launch.

Calling for the early deployment of the missile defence system, acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn urged the national security council to go ahead with this soon, before the end of the year as earlier planned.

Though intended to protect the South Korean and US military sites from North Korean missiles, China strongly opposes the THAAD deployment as it fears that would undermine its own nuclear deterrent. Beijing has hinted at economic retaliation against Seoul.

Japan too plans to reinforce its ballistic missile defences and is considering buying either THAAD or building a ground-based version of the Aegis system that is currently deployed on ships in the Sea of Japan.

Pyongyang has little respect for UN resolutions that makes launching of missiles by North Korea illegal.

The world is not expected to remain silent to North Korea's unlawful weapons programmes pose a grave threat to the security to the region.

Earlier, apart from threats to retaliate in response to the joint military drills, Kim Jong-un warned that his troops are in readiness to prepare for a 'merciless' counter-strike against potential enemy aggression.

Though the drills always raise tensions on the divided peninsula, this year it assumes special significance because of a ballistic missile test by North Korea and the assassination of Kim Jong-un's half-brother Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur airport and the North Korean regime's alleged hand in the murder.

On the security front, things are getting messier day by day. President Donald Trump reportedly discussed with his national security advisors various options against North Korea, including the possibility of re-introducing nuclear weapons in South Korea as a bold warning.

A North Korean diplomat who defected recently in the UK has said that if Kim Jong-un gets hold of nuclear weapons, he will surely use it. In his New Year’s Day speech Kim Jong-un claimed that his country was in the 'final stage' of preparing for its first ICBM test.

'If North Korea gets hold of nuclear weapons,' South Korean acting President Hwang rightly cautioned, 'its consequences are too horrible to think about.'

North Korea has boasted of having the ability to strike the continental US with a nuclear-tipped missile.

Though it has never tested a missile capable of flying across the Pacific, it has displayed what analysts say were ICBMs during military parades.

Strong doubt also remains over North Korea's claim that it can manufacture a nuclear warhead small enough to be fitted onto such a missile.

After North Korea test fired a new type of missile into the sea on February 12, President Trump vowed to rein in North Korea and Kim Jong-un. Re-introduction of nuclear weapons into South Korea is also on the table.

The US withdrew nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 before the rival Koreas signed a declaration on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. North Korea walked away from the agreement, citing the threat of a US invasion.

The situation in the Korean peninsula is ripe for a potential conflagration. Diplomacy must prevail to bring calm.

Dr Rajaram Panda is the ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitakau University, Japan. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect either the views of the ICCR or the Government of India.

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