As it was reported on Friday by the KCNA, during a visit to a closed firing range where advanced multiple rocket launchers were tested, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced that the country should be prepared to use its nuclear weapons at any moment to ensure its self-defense. The North Korean supreme leader has also underlined that he perceives the upcoming South Korean-US maneuvers as a dangerous gamble that could lead to disastrous consequences, so he ordered the North Korean army to raise all forces to high alert. The KCNA has also noted that “hostile forces led by the United States,” adopted a resolution that is “undermining the rights of the DPRK as a sovereign state.”
The part that one can consider to be crucial in all this information warfare is the fact that in the same speech, Kim Jong-un announced that Pyongyang would reconsider its military doctrine to allow the possibility of preemptive strikes being launched in connection with the dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula. On March 4, a statement issued by the DPRK government stated that in circumstances when the United States and its satellites have openly challenged North Korea’s sovereignty and have endangered its right to existence, any hostile actions would lead to a decisive response. The statement has also added that should some disastrous event occur on the Korean Peninsula or in the region adjacent to it, the entire responsibility will lie on the United States and its collaborators.
Later, the same notion was repeated in an official statement of the DPRK National Defense Commission that was released by the KCNA on March 7. The statement announced that due to the joint military exercises of the United States and South Korea labeled as “training for a nuclear war,” any hostile military act would lead to a preemptive nuclear strike launched in accordance with the procedure established by the high command of the Korean People’s Army.
It’s only natural that such statements aroused suspicion. Moscow has expressed serious concern over the entire situation. On March 4, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed the hope that all the parties involved will exercise restraint. The United States urged North Korean leaders to refrain from provocative statements and actions and focus on the fulfillment of DPRK’s international obligations. A Pentagon spokesman said the US is prepared to destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenals if North Korea poses a threat to the US, while noting that he had no evidence that the DPRK conducted test launches of intercontinental ballistic missile armed with nuclear warheads. In turn, the press secretary of the South Korean Ministry of Defence announced that North Korea must put an end to its defiant and destructive comments and actions, noting that Seoul will mercilessly respond to any provocation made by North Korea.
Such crises are truly alarming for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is necessary to take into account the context in which that decision is taken. While traditional news coverage of North Korea’s actions has been reduced long ago to suggesting Pyongyang’s actions are irrational and unprovoked, in fact we are witnessing a response to upcoming US-South Korean exercises “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle,” which will be held on the peninsula in the next two months. It’s reported that more than 300,000 South Korean and 15,000 US troops, including US nuclear aircraft carrier USS John Stennis will be participating in these exercises. And there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that those will mimic an invasion of North Korea, especially when it’s stated as an official goal.
Each military exercise in the immediate vicinity of DPRK’s border understandably affects the nerves of North Korea’s military commanders. There is absolutely no certainty that during such exercises due to some mysterious incident, they will not transform into a full-scale invasion. This can happen as a result of a deliberate provocation by the South, or when some North Korean officer loses his nerve. Yet, there’s a possibility that we will witness the repetition of the situation that occurred back in 2015, when South Korean officers were reluctant to investigate their own criminal carelessness so they decided to push all blame instead on the North for an accident that occurred with their own soldiers.
In such a situation, Pyongyang is trying to look as vicious and dangerous as it possibly can. It doesn’t stand a chance in a fight against South Korea, supported by the United States. However, the North could inflict so much damage on the South that a military victory against it will become meaningless. Such a threat works like a tub of cold water on hot heads: understanding that the North will “die singing” doesn’t make anyone all too willing to fight.
A similar situation occurred during the previous round of nuclear crisis on the peninsula back in 2013. At that time the sitting President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, just came to power, and there was a possibility that supporters of the former president or young officers bewildered with revanchist ideas might try to escalate the situation. They were consumed by the idea that if politicians did not interfere with their actions, they could destroy the Pyongyang government in 90 hours. Then, in 2013, the DPRK also made a number of risky statements against the background of the upcoming exercise. Although the headlines once again shouted that the Korean peninsula is on the brink of war, no one decided to jump the gun. However, the situation today is somewhat more complicated. Park Geun-hye has deviated from her initially moderate positions becoming conservative, and former young majors have now become colonels. In this situation, Pyongyang raises the stakes higher than three years ago.
However, this leads to a new round amid the ongoing security dilemma of North Korea, since the statements made by Kim Jong-un can be interpreted as changes in North Korean military doctrine. Until recently, Pyongyang has positioned its missile and nuclear program solely as a self-defense option, and all the promises of drowning Seoul in a sea of fire were made in the wake of possible provocations. And now the DPRK is talking about America’s all time favorite ‘preemptive strikes’ that can be unleashed by somewhat more uncertain provocations. That’s a truly dangerous dilemma. Firstly, this level of military readiness can not but seen without concern by others in the region, a readiness to take action in response to a possibility of such a strike being launched against them, which clearly raises tensions. Secondly, in the fight of the weak against the strong, the weak striking first is a good way to increase one’s chances of prevailing. But this can only be said about an inevitable fight, while a preemptive strike destroys all chances for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Three years ago I noted in one of my articles that the path chosen by the DPRK provides it a tactical advantage, but may lead it to a dead end on the strategic level. In response to ever increasing pressure of new sanctions, North Korea will become more heavily involved in the arms race, and the vicious circle will be tightening at every turn with ever increasing speed. Yet, North Korea’s problems, like its security dilemma or the tensions between Pyongyang on one side and Beijing and Moscow on the other, are not going anywhere. At the same time Washington keeps exploiting the North Korean threat for its own ends.
This vicious circle has yet another drawback, since there’s few exit strategies one can find in it. Although North Korea believes that its nuclear program provides it with independence, in fact it makes the actions of its government more predictable.The DPRK has now lost any strategic initiative and is now acting “reactively,” which makes it even more dependent on external factors. So it’s not rocket science at this point to get a certain reaction from the government of North Korea once one has applied pressure from a certain angle. Let’s hope no one will take advantage of this fact to launch additional provocations.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.