16.03.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the Importance of Staying Cool in the Face of Provocations

20105212015244031On March 7, the Republic of Korea (ROK)-United States joint military drills known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle began. The goal of this year’s exercises is to practice pinpoint strikes on the North Korean (DPRK) leadership and the country’s key nuclear sites and missile facilities. Although these drills are held annually, this year they are unprecedented in scale and are carried out against the backdrop of tough anti-North Korean sanctions. This year 15 thousand American soldiers will take part in the drills—twice as many as last year as well as 300 thousand South Korean military personnel. Many units of sophisticated combat equipment will be used by the American armed forces in the maneuvers, including nuclear powered supercarrier USS John C. Stennis and atomic submarines. Most probably, B-2 stealth bombers will also be deployed to the Korean Peninsula.

At this time, the probability of a “Pig War” (sparked due to an escalated tension) will reach its peak. Starting March 14, a new phase of the joint exercise will be launched. In its course, the participating troops will be practicing simulated mechanized assault deep into North Korean territory and destruction of the leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Technically, a country can hold any type of military drills in its territory. But it should keep in mind the provocative actions can spawn a corresponding international reaction. I would imagine that were, say, Barak Obama, to learn that one of the countries of the BRICS is officially practicing his assassination, he would most certainly pull some levers of influence to get a message of discontent across to the party involved.

North Korea does not have so many levers of influence to pull. Usually it resorts to a traditional rhetoric to express its displeasure that sends a message similar to the following: “Don’t you dare to bother us, or you’ll be really sorry!” This time the North were responding in the traditional style, but, as it seems, overdoing it.

Here are some examples of their behavior. In a statement issued by the North Korean Embassy on March 12, they not only called Park Geun-hye “a prostitute and a witch,” but also threatened to implement “a set of ongoing special measures designed to hasten the tragic death of the treacherous Park Geun-hye’s gang by delivering deadly political, military and economic blows.” Another statement warns that “only a gun can be used to settle scores with US imperialists and Park Geun-hye’s gang, who do not value prudence and reason.” Therefore, “our nation cannot afford to twiddle thumbs when faced with a senseless military stir aimed at our Motherland; ‘sitting on the nuclear arsenal’ will no longer do, and the world must accept that a nuclear disaster is unavoidable this time.”

On the same day, DPRK Today quoted a North Korean nuclear physicist, who had confirmed that Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had managed not only to miniaturize the nuclear charge, but had also produced a hydrogen bomb “much more stronger than that developed by the USSR“. And, “if to deliver this bomb with help of a ballistic intercontinental missile to New York and blow it, all people would immediately die and the city would lay in ashes.”

The rhetoric of this nature compels to call upon the readers to maintain soberness and self-control. The strategy of getting on the opponent’s nerves and encouraging aggression is not the most ethical move, but the party that falls to provocation not only “swallows the plotter’s bate,” but also technically assumes responsibility for the situation. Please recall that those who orchestrated the incident in the winter of 2010 avoided taking the responsibilities for it. In the end, the blame was laid on North Korea.

The statements of the kind “The world will have to accept that a nuclear catastrophe is inevitable,” of course, evoke respective feelings. Those not familiar with the context can jump to a conclusion that if North Korea threatens to use asymmetrical measures to respond to minor problems then something must be done to neutralize it before the real problem arises. If to follow this logic, a pre-emptive strike is fully justified.

Please recall that before the second Iraqi war Saddam Hussein tried to convince the international community that he did not possess weapon of mass destruction. The strike was, however, launched on Iraq any way. And it happened not because the country lacked democracy (this “honorable cause” appeared later), but because they kept saying that “the tyrannical regime is about to inflict a strike on its neighbors.” Now let us speculate what the situation would have been like if Iraqi propaganda machine of that time had crossed the line and kept trumpeting about its intention to use deadly poison gases against its enemies and to wedge a Holy War on them. Certainly, there would have been more reasons to justify the strike against Baghdad.

Contemporary politicians want to look like supermen in the eyes of the public, but this image comes at a price of heavy dependence on the public opinion. At some point, interpersonal relations and unwritten rules come to play and transform the big policy. Consequently, the notion that “we must not look like some kind of weaklings and should retaliate in a harsh manner” starts competing with a more rational behavior of staying calm and sober. But an attack on a “sacred cow” in the idiosyncratic systems, be that the leader’s prestige or “democratic values,” (each system has its own “cows”) is deemed as a sacrilege. And it is much harder to stay calm and not retaliate in this situation.

Let us also consider another point—the ability of a politician to cope with stress. A young politician can over-react when dealing with a provocation by virtue of his age and temperament. Let us hope that this young politician, as well as his allies, will be wise enough to stay cool. On the other hand, it never hurts to ring the alarm if a situation is rapidly deteriorating threatening to turn into a catastrophe. The behavior of the “young politician” is in no way similar to the behavior of the proverbial boy from the Aesop’s fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It has nothing to do with the hackneyed headline Korean Peninsular in on the Brink of a War either. Here we are talking about some sort of safety measures: if there was no explosion this time, one should not assume that the next time the detonator will falter again. Such situations must not be ignored, but should be addressed to prevent a real disaster.

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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