A new round of inter-Korean crisis has been largely portrayed in the international media in comic book fashion. It was reported that “Kim Jong Un issued an order to launch an attack,” and “Pyongyang presented Seoul with an ultimatum, demanding to cease the psychological warfare against the DPRK and dismantle the border loudspeakers in the next 48 hours.” A regular reader after taking a look at these reports may conclude that everything was, until this recent exchange, calm on the Korean peninsula, until then the “mad” North Korean tyrant suddenly decided to provoke conflict. But should the events be examined in a broader context, one may find that this initial impression is wrong.
New tensions developed in light of joint US-South Korean military exercises, which rallied up to 80 thousand soldiers. North Korea traditionally perceives these exercises as a rehearsal for an all-out invasion and calls time and time again for their cancellation, while the South insists since they conduct exercises in their territory, its their sovereign right. It should be noted, however, that those are truly large-scale maneuvers and they are offensive in their nature so one cannot dismiss North Korean accusations as groundless. It’s safe to say that tensions on the Korean Peninsula has been mounting lately.
All this coincided with the struggle in South Korea, raging between the ruling party that supports the sitting President Park Geun-hye (more moderate and less pro-American than she is generally considered) and the supporters of harsh measures that are favored by the former President Lee Myung-bak. Conservatives managed to save the prime minister’s position for themselves, even despite the fact that they failed to put a limit on the president’s powers.
On August 4, 2015 two servicemen from South Korea triggered a land mine in the demilitarized zone on the border between DPRK and the Republic of Korea and were badly injured. A week into the investigation of this incident, a South Korean commission announced that mines must have been set up secretly by North Korean special forces. Yet, no one can explain why a military patrol wasn’t equipped with a mine detector when they knew that the border area has always been heavily mined. It seems that claims of a North Korean provocation sound better than a case of sloppiness, especially in a situation when the soldiers were severely injured.
So, without further ado, North Korea was found guilty of launching a provocation, and South Korean officials decided that they would start broadcasting propaganda through loudspeakers across the border to punish Pyongyang for its “cunning”. It’s curious that North Korean officials have repeatedly stated that the intensification of anti-North Korean propaganda on the border will lead to artillery strikes aimed at the loudspeakers.
At first it seemed that this was exactly what had happened, that North Korea shelled the speakers. It’s been reported that the North had allegedly opened fire and damaged one of the “propaganda tools”. The South returned fire (firing more than 30 artillery rounds), but no human casualties or further continuation of this skirmish was reported. But later on it turned out that even if the North was shooting, they were using large-caliber machine guns, and it was said that someone had even found a bullet, but no damage was reported whatsoever. Therefore, it is no wonder that the DPRK media announced that it was a provocation – “Southerners fired indiscriminately for no reason”, which allowed Pyongyang to put forward an ultimatum.
What happened next sounds even more surprising. the South announced that the propaganda broadcasting will continue, and then they began evacuating civilians from the border areas, while putting all military units on high alert. President Park Geun-hye held an urgent meeting with the National Security Council, announcing that the armed forces must respond decisively to any provocations. At the same time Washington announced that it would continue working together with South Korea to resolve the situation.
As for the South Korean opposition, its leader, Moon Jae-in demanded Pyongyang stop any provocations that could lead to mutual destruction, but at the same time he put forward a proposal to hold an inter-Korean meeting at the highest level to find a way out of this situation and to improve bilateral relations.
But it seems that DPRK officials were not intimidated by the aggressive posture of the South Korean government. Kim Jong-un ordered his generals to put all troops on high alert and prepare for a tactical offensive, while border patrols were instructed “to attack loudspeakers at will while suppressing any possible resistance of the enemy”. The DPRK’s Foreign Ministry issued a communique, underlining that the people of the country are prepared to go for war to defend the political structure of their country. North Korean ambassadors to Moscow and Beijing confirmed that retaliation by Pyongyang to any provocations will be inevitable. Ambassador Kim Hyun Joong stated that the mine explosion on August 4 was an accident and that North Korea, unlike Washington and Seoul, is not interested in a new escalation.
Then, DPRK authorities formally requested the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the joint US-South Korean maneuvers – exercises involving about 80 thousand soldiers. It was said that those troops pose a threat to international peace and security. “Should the Security Council once again ignore a fair request of the DPRK to discuss joint military exercises, it will demonstrate that it has abandoned its primary mission of maintaining international peace and security to serve as a political tool in the hands of a single power.”
The incident has significantly raised tensions on the peninsula, but it is unlikely that the situation will escalate into a full fledged war, though it is clear that high-ranking officers in the Republic of Korea are convinced that they are capable of destroying the North with the technical superiority they possess. However, those sentiments are suppressed by the government and the former Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin who has assumed the position of the Chief of The National Security Office in South Korea. The United States is not eager to allow this situation to deteriorate into military engagements either, since America will inevitably be forced to get involved in it under the conditions of the Mutual Defense Treaty. So far Washington refrained from its toxic anti-DPRK propaganda, while only stating that North Korea is aggravating the situation. In turn, China has not provided us with any official reaction yet.
However strange it may sound, North Korean leaders are nowhere near the belligerent cartoon characters they are frequently depicted as, who would launch a massive war just for the sake of it. Even if Kim Jong-un was thinking about attacking the South, he would never launch an advance in a situation when some 80 thousand South Korean troops are spread along the border, standing at full combat readiness. Moreover, this hypothetical invasion of the South would have occurred on the eve of an important event – the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II in Beijing, which might have brought the leaders of both Koreas together. Park Geun-hye is going to China, despite the continuing pressure from Washington. In this case, the invasion would equate to a significant means of disrupting the event and significantly spoil relations with Beijing, and quite possibly, Moscow.
But should one assume that the invasion is being prepared on the other side of the Korean border, then the situation starts to make sense, especially when the situation is as unclear as it is. But don’t start blaming the State Department or the Blue House just yet. There’s a lot of trigger-happy officers that would love to stage a provocation in order to go to war, and once “the North Korean military provocation” is staged, the South Korean president and the parliamentary opposition will not dare cast doubt on the credibility of the security agencies.
Even if the negotiations that have already been started would lead to a peaceful settlement of the incident, one should note that such cases are only increasing the likelihood of a military conflict between the two Koreas. Mutual demonization allows each side to interpret the actions of the enemy in the most unfavorable manner. The lack of comprehensive means of communication prevents officials on both sides from verifying the information. But propaganda is deceptive since both sides may at some point believe that on paper they can achieve an easy victory without making considerable sacrifices, while in reality the situation may look strikingly different.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD (History), Senior Researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”