13.03.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Irrational Factor and Possible Deterioration of Inter-Korean Relations

54645645Kim Jong-un’s statement that the country will soon be revamping its military doctrine to adjust to the new external conditions, and that it may use nuclear weapons to counter any threat “whenever necessary,” has made a stir and has been covered in a separate article (reference to the previous article Have We Witnessed a Dramatic Change in the Military Doctrine of the DPRK?). But despite the public’s reaction, this news was just another link in the chain of acts of mutual demonization and agitation. It would be, therefore, worthy to take a closer look at the entire chain.

First, we have unceasing speculations about future acts of terrorism and provocations. Since they are expected to happen any minute, lawmakers are urged to pass some counter-terrorist laws. Earlier this topic has already been covered in more details. However, on March 2, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (South Korea) began the inspection of 126 country’s strategic facilities to assess their readiness for terrorist attacks. The inspection will continue till June. The inspection checklist contains such risks as possible explosion of dams, emergencies on the railroads, acts of terrorism on aircrafts, disrupted delivery of freight by land, threats associated with public buildings, etc.

In addition, the population was advised “to recall the addresses of air-raid shelters.”

On March 7, a scheduled US-South Korean joint military drill commenced. The troops will practice landing and simulate an advancement into the North Korean territory to recover key nuclear sites and missile facilities. According to the plans, the drill will last twice as long as last year. Some say it will be the largest military exercise ever conducted. Two nuclear-powered aircraft-carriers and combat forces will take part in it. It is no wonder then, that back in February the North threatened to take strict retaliatory measures.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has “stolen the leadership” from Russia and is now viewed by Washington as the “chief US enemy.” The recent Gallup poll showed that 16% of Americans consider North Korea their “chief enemy.”

Meanwhile, South Korean leadership’s anti-North Korean rhetoric spurs up the growth of anti-North Korean sentiment. Assessing Park Geun-hye’s latest statements from the standpoint of traditional rhetoric, one would discover that they are as harsh and belligerent as those voiced by her North Korean counterparts are. A radio interview given by a chairperson of South Korea’s parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, representative Na Kyung-won on February 15 falls under the same category, “It is time to think about all possibilities including some arguments for a change of the North Korean regime“.

Earlier, on February 12, another lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung was even more explicit in his interview given to the YTN radio station, “Now it is time for South Korea to seriously think about the removal of Kim Jong-un,” as “there are only 4-5 years to remove the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Otherwise, Kim Jong-un will shake the foundations of the world with nuclear weapons.” Please take note that this person is a former human rights activist.

US-South Korean joint exercises to practice assassination of North Korean leadership and acts of sabotage on nuclear sites and other North Korean facilities were an open secret even in the past, but today they are talked about explicitly. Meanwhile, such confessions cannot but trigger retaliatory actions (at a minimum) aimed at curbing the attempts of a like nature. It would be fit to speculate then that if Pyongyang declared they plan a physical destruction of the South Korean leadership, Seoul would immediately react with an upsurge of “anti-terrorist” activities.

South Korean belligerent leadership is only part of the problem. There are also spoiling for fight rookie officers wishing to teach the Northerners a lesson. Yes, there are also those officers, who understand that nobody would benefit from another escalation of tension. The August shooting was in this sense a purposeful “miss the shot” event. But in the medium-term the troublemakers are getting lucky, as those young majors, who talked about “90 hours” are now being promoted to lieutenant colonels and colonels.

In general (and this is true not only for Korea), the generation of those who do not understand what a WORLD WAR is about is coming into power. And if their fathers at least have heard about war from their fathers and grandfathers, the new generation grew up not knowing the fear of war. Moreover, they grew up playing computer wargames and have acquired the sense of “false security.” They live under the spell of technological advantage. They are under the illusion that an advanced missile defense system will let them strike first and avoid a retaliatory strike. And, although somewhere in the back of their minds they understand that their hopes might be false, the temptation of aggression with impunity is too hard to resist.

Meanwhile, the last chances to recover the inter-Korean dialogue are going down the drain. Cooperation in almost all areas has come to halt: South Korean party has ceased the implementation of 17 non-governmental inter-Korean projects. According to the statement made by the South Korean Ministry of Unification on Wednesday, the suspended projects were humanitarian in nature. They included delivery of humanitarian aid to North Korea and visiting of the country by representatives of religious and non-religious organizations.

South Korean government has even asked its citizens to stop eating out at North Korean restaurants in foreign countries. A corresponding written recommendation was forwarded to the South Korean diplomatic representative offices in the countries where there are North Korean restaurants. South Korean government views restaurants as one of the sources of hard currency for the North Korean regime.

The Northerners treat Park Geun-hye with her own medicine. On March 4, when watching the test of a new multi-purpose missile launcher, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has several times mentioned the name of the South Korean president, using strong words. South Korean Ministry of Unification expressed its regret in this connection.

In addition, currently General Kim Yong Chol is in charge of the relations with the South. And he is regarded as one of the chief North Korean troublemakers.

Each new wave of escalating tension is a source of stress because it brings the situation on the Korean Peninsula one step closer to a conflict sparked by some silly “irrational factor.” And that might happen because the illusion that “there will be no war” leads to a reckless behavior based on the misconception that “they would never start a large-scale war over such a minor mischief.” And reckless behavior makes the other party feel that they should have responded to the provocations in a much tougher manner, but had not done so because of politicians. And then it might grow to an understanding that the “last warning” tactic might not work anymore one day. And that sometimes tigers stop hissing and start biting. If you factor in the “uncertainties of war,” misconceptions caused by ideological blinders, increased levels of stress and nervous tension. Pair that with a situation when the parties are instructed to retaliate in a tough manner and act according to the circumstances, you will end up with a picture of increasing probability of “the Pig War” that will be described in a dedicated article.

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.


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