06.11.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Korea: Still at the Red Line


Not long ago, the author described the situation on the Korean Peninsula as still at the red line, and although the past month seemed to be without incidents, we cannot say that the crisis has ended.

The DPRK has behaved relatively calmly, and South Korean experts managed to make an unfortunate slip twice. First, the administration of the Republic of Korea announced “the possibility of additional missile provocations by the North on the occasion of the Day of the Establishment of the Workers’ Party of Korea celebrated on October 10, although there are no certain signs of this at the moment.” When nothing blew up on the specified dates, experts suggested new provocations up to October 18, when the XIX Congress of the Communist Party of China would open in Beijing.

In addition, we draw attention to the recent incident with the fishermen. On October 26, the Korean Central News Agency reported the detention of the South Korean fishing vessel Hungjin-391 that had illegally invaded the DPRK water area on October 21. The North stated that according to the results of the investigation, the crew of the Hungjin, which included seven citizens of the Republic of Korea and three citizens of Vietnam, deliberately invaded the fishing grounds and fished there, while the southerners explained the situation by a chain of accidents (communication with the vessel was lost).

However, the KCNA report also noted in the same statement that “all the fishermen had frankly acknowledged the facts of their illegal invasion and repeatedly apologized for this, from the point of humanistic view, it was decided to return them together with the vessel.” They returned six days later, and on the night of October 27, Hungjin-391 arrived at the sea port of Sokcho. Information that during these days, the sailors were subjected to cruel treatment or were required to “choose freedom” has not been received yet.

On the other hand, there were enough hard words demonstrating the invariability of the course chosen by Pyongyang. As Director of the North American Department of the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs Choi Song Hui announced at the Moscow Non-Proliferation Conference, Pyongyang has no plans to negotiate on the nuclear weapon, and the USA would have to reconcile to its nuclear status. At the same time, Choi Song Hui gave the assurance that Pyongyang does not intend to use nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the absence of a threat to it; nuclear weapons were required to maintain stability and security on the Korean Peninsula and in North East Asia.

On October 19, 2017, in response to the next regular military training, the DPRK made an official statement and threatened the USA with an “blow that is unheard-of ” at an “unexpected moment”. “Now that the enemies are claiming that the exercises will be the demonstration of a real blow on the DPRK, they should know that the toughest Korean-style countermeasures are fully prepared to dispel the target like smoke with a single blow.”

Following this, on October 25, 2017, Deputy Director of the American Institute under the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs Lee Yong Phil stated in an interview to CNN that the statement of the Foreign Minister of the DPRK Lee Yong-Ho that the DPRK could test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean should be understood as it sounded. These words cannot be ignored, as the DPRK has always implemented the plans it announces. And this is not good because, if the DPRK carries out an explosion in the atmosphere, it will be a landmark event that will lead to either Kim Jong-un having intoxicating success with unpleasant consequences for him, or a scenario where we will move to another world order in which such a test remains de-facto unanswered.

In an interview with the TASS agency, Lee Yong-Ho confirmed that “the DPRK people demand that the USA be punished for its aggressive policy “with a fiery hail”; the DPRK rocket forces “have inexhaustible strength” and will not leave the USA “unpunished.” “Now is the turn of the USA to pay off, and all our army and people insistently demand to settle old scores with the Americans only by presenting it with a fiery hail instead of words,” said Lee Yong-Ho.

Now let us discuss the response speeches and actions of the US and its allies. Donald Trump has not made any bombastic speeches, but it is worth paying attention to the statements that the Secretary of Defense James Mattis made during his second visit to the Republic of Korea this year.

On October 27, while visiting the Panmunjom crossing point on the inter-Korean border, Mattis noted that the US goal was not to unleash a war but to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. According to Mattis, the United States will never reconcile with North Korea’s nuclear program, and its nuclear program will not strengthen the country’s security, but on the contrary, will undermine it. In addition, “any attack against the USA or our allies will be repelled”. And any use of nuclear weapons will involve a massive military response, which will be both efficient and overwhelming.”

On the same day, the head of the Pentagon had a meeting with the President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae-in, who praised the role of the South Korean-American military alliance and even pointed out that the deployment of the US strategic weapons on the Korean Peninsula would have a deterrent effect on Pyongyang, thus raising the level of security for the South Koreans.

It is believed that Donald Trump will make an even tougher statement to Pyongyang during his visit to the Republic of Korea and China. This was announced by the Chair of the opposition party Free Korea Hong Zhong Phyo while speaking to journalists in the USA on October 26. He noted that Washington’s policy in respect to North Korea for the past 25 years has turned out to be unsuccessful, and that there were no more reasons to apply it. He also stressed that the statement about the possibility of deploying the American tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea or the creation of a nuclear missile by the South could prove to be an effective way to contain the North Korean threat.

While the South Korean conservatives are eager to put words into Trump’s mouth that are advantageous for them, during the discussion of the program of Trump’s visit to the Republic of Korea, the US party announced the desire of the US President to visit Camp Humphreys Base in Pyeongtaek in the Gyeonggi Province. It was at this place that the opening ceremony of the headquarters of the Eighth Army of the United States that moved there from the Seoul region of Yongsan took place on July 11.

In general, some inconsistency is observed: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has noted that “diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bombs fall,” while US President Assistant for National Security General Herbert McMaster has stated that Donald Trump will take any measures to contain the nuclear threat of the DPRK. The US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley believes that attempts to negotiate with the DPRK during the past 25 years have been unsuccessful, and Washington will not beg Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.

Thus, it is better to focus not on words, but on the actions, numerous as well.

From September 25 to September 29, 2017, Seoul hosted the Hvaran Military Exercises, in which 77 thousand people took part, including military officers and police.  The exercises are held every two years to ensure a cohesive interaction in the event of an enemy invasion and other emergencies, and are organized by the Army Forces Command providing defence to the capital. This year, the exercises were aimed at training the procedure in the event of provocations and terrorist acts in the centre of Seoul.

On October 10, two American B-1B Lancer strategic bombers and two South Korean F-15K fighters conducted exercises over the Eastern and Yellow Seas, firing air-to-surface missiles. As we recall, the previous exercises were conducted at night on September 23-24.

From October 16 to October 20, Washington and Seoul conducted joint military exercises in the Eastern and Yellow Seas that saw the participation of a total of 40 vessels. These were aimed at working out joint actions of the Republic of Korea Navy and the 7th US Navy Fleet, and the manoeuvres of the South Korean Air Force and the 7th Air Army of the Pacific Command of the United States. They trained the joint organization of antisubmarine, anti-sabotage, anti-ship and anti-aircraft defence, as well as a warning on a missile attack and the liquidation of the enemy’s Special Forces during an attempt to penetrate the sea border (the latter is related to the fact that recently, the North Korean military started conducting more exercises on penetration into the western islands).

The nuclear aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan arrived to participate in the exercises at the shores of the Republic of Korea carrying about 70 units of aircraft, including the FA-18 Super Hornet deck fighter, which carried out 90 operational flights, a deck-based electronic warfare aircraft, and long-range patrol aircraft. It leads the aircraft carrier group, which also includes the Statham and Mastin destroyers equipped with the Aegis Missile Defence System, missile cruisers, nuclear submarines and others.

In addition to the aircraft carrier group, the world’s largest NPS Michigan equipped with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles with a range of 2,000 km, , which entered the South Korean port of Busan, FA-18 fighter-bomber, anti-submarine and anti-tank helicopters, as well as the A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft participated in the military exercises. The Sazhong the Great destroyer, surface ships, and submarines were involved from the side of the Republic of Korea. Anti-submarine P-3 reconnaissance aircraft, multi-purpose helicopters, UH-60 helicopters and F-15K fighter-bomber were also mobilized.

On October 23, closed exercises were held to train the evacuation of the American citizens in the Republic of Korea. Unlike other events, they were not actively announced, and the media learned about the event only after they were mentioned by the northerners.

In addition, on October 23-27, the air forces of the Republic of Korea and the USA conducted military exercises on rescuing pilots who suffer a disaster in the mountain areas of the enemy territory and their transportation in mountainous conditions. For this purposes, the USA deployed the 31st air rescue squadron located at Caden base in Japan to the Republic of Korea.On October 24, the armed forces of South Korea, the United States, and Japan launched joint exercises to detect and track North Korean missile launches. The Joint Committee of the Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Korea reported that these would last until October 25 at sea off the coast of South Korea and Japan in the form of computer generated simulation. The South Korean destroyer Yulgok Li I equipped with the Aegis Early Detection System, American destroyers of the Arly Burke type, including the Statham, and the Japanese destroyer Kirishima participated in the exercises.

On October 30, Washington launched the annual Global Thunder exercises of the strategic nuclear forces, during which the US military hope to work out “the actions of the global strike and anti-missile defence”, as well as “cyber capabilities”.

On the same day, the Republic of Korea launched the largest exercises in history on civil defence, the prevention and liquidation of consequences of emergency situations. 25 departments, 245 regional administrations, 256 state organizations are participating in the event. Within five days, 388 field exercises, 477 discussions, and command and staff events, including nationwide earthquake preparations, will be held throughout the country.

From November 1 to November 3, the Republic of Korea Navy and Australian Navy will hold the joint Haedori-Wallaby exercises for the fifth time. On the part of the Republic of Korea, the destroyer Munmu the Great with a displacement of 4,400 tons, the 2,500-ton Chonbuk frigate and others, in total, seven ships and submarines, as well as the Lynx helicopters and P-3 coastal patrol aircraft will take part in the manoeuvres. The Australian Naval Forces will be represented by frigates Melbourne with a displacement of 4,300 tons and Parramatta with a displacement of 3,800 tons, as well as P-8 coastal patrol aircraft and MN-60 helicopter. The parties plan to train tactical manoeuvres, anti-vessel actions, firing, and other military operations.

Finally, from October 30 to November 9, the large-scale scheduled Hoguk, which means “defence of the homeland” military exercises will be conducted close to the border with the DPRK,. Units of the 7th Army Corps will participate in the exercises, which shall take place in a number of districts in the provinces of Kengi, Kangwon and North Chungcheong, including regions bordering with North Korea. The precise scale of the exercises is not reported. However, judging by previous years, several tens of thousands of servicemen and hundreds of tank units, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured vehicles, artillery and other equipment will be mobilized. Most likely, there will be artillery firings as well.

Against this background, the DPRK conducted massive civil defence exercises, including evacuation, for the first time in many years. This fact was reported by the NK News portal with a reference to a source in the DPRK. The exercises were conducted in several regions of the country outside Pyongyang, in small settlements mostly on the east coast of the country. The participants of the exercises trained evacuation in the event of alarm and mass power cut with blackout exercises in case of bombing of the country.

In conclusion, let us pay attention to the ongoing shaft of information stating that the DPRK is about to do something terrible. Now, Chinese expert Chong Sho-Hu (the search by a name strange for the Chinese shows only this statement, which puts the validity of the source under a big question) states that China is fed up with Pyongyang and, in a certain situation, it will even take part in the punishment.

Now, as Yomiuri newspaper states, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg admits that “Europe is in the zone of reach of the North Korean missiles. NATO countries are already under the threat” and the members of the alliance are ready to answer: “NATO may take a decision to launch a counter attack.”

And now, the US Congress Research Service, well-known for its odiousness thanks to Wikileaks, published a report that is obviously based on the events of the Homefront computer game – Pyongyang can use its missile carriers to withdraw nuclear weapons over the polar region, and then blow it up over the United States. This will lead to a high-frequency electromagnetic pulse, as a result of which the electric power system will be shut off for an indefinite period and (the last statement was created by the journalists, in fact) this will result in the death of up to 90 percent of the US population within a year.
Another report from the same source quoted by Bloomberg states that the military conflict “can affect more than 25 million people on both sides of the border, including 100,000 US citizens,” and the number of deaths in the early days will be from 30,000 to 300,000 people. The researchers give such an assessment based on the concentration of artillery in North Korea, which not only reaches Seoul, but can also fire up to 10,000 missiles per minute.

How can we sum up these facts? As a rule, while analyzing the probability of an attack, we draw attention to three aspects:

  • The bellicose statements of the leaders clearly indicating such an intention.

  • The development of operational plans and the military exercises, in which these actions are worked out.

  • The provocative acts and/or other actions that increase tension.

None of these aspects in itself is proof (for example, the development of a war plan by the staff officers does not mean a desire to attack), but their combination allows us to say that staying at a red line on the Korean Peninsula still remains.

On October 18, the former CIA Director John Brennan said during a discussion at the University of Ford in New York that the probability of a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula is about 20-25%, the author sees a greater probability.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.