26.08.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Early escalation?

digest of inter-Korean tensions

On July 22, 2023, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Gen. Mark Milley informed the Japanese daily Nikkei that “the Korean situation is an area that the United States could ― I’m not saying it will, but ‘could’ ― find itself in a state of war, you know, within a few days, with very little notice.” Milley then described North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as unpredictable, claiming that a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile may strike the US mainland.

Milley’s objective, according to South Korean experts, was undoubtedly to stress Washington’s commitment to maintaining peace and security on the peninsula, but he could have been more careful in his choice of words. According to Park Won-gon, professor in North Korean Studies at Ewha Woman’s University, Milley’s words were inappropriate and conveyed “the impression that the US is influenced by North Korea’s strategy to create tension on the Korean Peninsula through continuous military provocations.” The top US general has made it clear that he views the present events on the peninsula as a major threat to the security of the Indo-Pacific region, but he might have gone too far.

Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, added, “Milley’s comments were symbolic, rather than accurate. If he was referring to a full-scale war, there’s a slim chance for such a situation to occur with little notice. The current rising tensions may result in skirmishes, but a full-scale war is unlikely to happen abruptly without any warning signs.”

Such statements make us prematurely post another “digest of inter-Korean tensions” to make it clearer against what background such a statement was made.

So, on July 16, the ROK, US and Japanese navies conducted a joint missile defense exercise in the international waters of the Sea of Japan. Three Aegis-equipped destroyers participated in the exercise: ROKS Yulgok Yi I, USS John Finn, and the Japanese Maya-class destroyer. The exercise practiced the detection and tracking of a ballistic missile as well as the exchange of relevant information.  It was the fourth trilateral drill since President Yoon Suk-yeol took office.

On July 17, KCNA published a new statement by Kim Yo-jong, Deputy Department Director of the Publicity and Information Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea: Recently, the US side has built up public opinion that the DPRK does not respond to dialogue. The present situation on the Korean Peninsula has reached such a phase that the possibility of an actual armed conflict and even the outbreak of a nuclear war are debated. The absurdity of “dialogue without any preconditions” and “opening the door of diplomacy,” much touted by the US in public is obvious. The present US administration will put nothing but “CVID” (complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization) on the negotiation table or a temporary halt to the US-South Korea joint military drills. “Such a slender trick for earning time can never work on us.”

Kim recalled how the United States had stripped the DPRK of the title of “terrorist-sponsoring country” and then reattached it, and how the position had shifted from Trump to Biden or Moon to Yoon. “In the United States of America and the “Republic of Korea,” any agreements, signed and committed by preceding presidents, are instantly reversed once new regimes emerge.” That’s why Pyongyang has to “adopt a long-term strategy against the “ROK,” the top-class stooge of America, and the USA, the empire of world evils, not such individuals as Yoon Suk-yeol or Biden, and build up a mechanism for guaranteeing the prospective security of the DPRK on the basis of overwhelming deterrent.” The First Sister concluded by emphasizing that “the DPRK is ready for resolutely countering any acts of violating its sovereignty and territorial integrity, threatening the wellbeing of its people and destroying peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.” In this context, the intercontinental ballistic missile launch “which the US watched with apprehension a few days ago, is only the beginning.”

Experts again noted that Kim used both the North’s traditional designation of “South Korea” and the term “ROK,” concluding that “Pyongyang appears to have entered a ‘new phase’ in its approach to engaging with Seoul and Washington.” “Cornered and isolated, North Korea seems to have given a sign that it is open to talks,” said Go Myong-hyun, a senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Park Won-gon, an expert on North Korea at Ewha Womans University, suggested that internal issues, including food shortages, might be pushing the regime to consider moving away from its “frontal breakthrough” strategy, which was promulgated at the 2020 central committee meeting of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.

The first meeting of the South Korea-US Nuclear Security Advisory Group (NCG) took place on July 18 at the ROK Presidential Office. The group will meet four times a year. Their progress and results will be closely monitored by the heads of the two countries. Republic of Korea (ROK) National Security Advisor Cho Tae-yong stated that the nuclear security advisory group aims to deepen Seoul’s participation in US nuclear management in order to fight Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear activities.  During the discussion, the two sides reviewed combined responses to Pyongyang’s nuclear threat and agreed to coordinate and perform various ground exercises and simulations, as well as collaboratively plan and implement South Korea’s assistance for US nuclear forces.

The allies also agreed to establish a communications network to enable the timely exchange of necessary information and topics for discussion, review nuclear planning and situations, specify how joint operations involving US nuclear forces and ROK non-nuclear assets will be conducted, periodically convey necessary strategic messages through the regular movement and deployment of US strategic nuclear weapons to the ROK, and specify contingency plans in the event of a nuclear emergency.

The meeting was attended by Deputy National Advisor Kim Tae-hyo, Kurt Campbell, Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific and deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for defense policy and arms control at the National Security Council Cara Abercrombie. Immediately before the event, ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol met with the participants and emphasized the importance of firmly countering Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear threats by strengthening nuclear deterrence. “Just as President Biden warned in April that North Korea will meet the end of its regime in the event it carries out a nuclear attack, we must strengthen extended deterrence credibility through a nuclear-based South Korea-US alliance to ensure North Korea does not dare to use nuclear weapons.” Yoon then encouraged officials to develop specific ways to meet the two presidents’ vows to boost extended deterrence, saying it would be an important starting point for South Korea and the US to build a robust and effective extended deterrence.

On the same day, South Korea’s Defense Ministry claimed that the US nuclear submarine Kentucky had docked in Busan as part of Washington’s consistent implementation of the idea of “extended deterrence.” Thus, for the first time in more than four decades, a nuclear-powered submarine capable of carrying a nuclear charge arrived in South Korea. USS Kentucky, with a displacement of 18,750 tons and measuring 170 meters in length, is one of the largest SSBNs in the world and can carry more than 20 Trident-II ballistic missiles with a range of up to 12,000 kilometers (7,450 miles). Each missile may carry four nuclear bombs with a devastating capacity 1,000 times greater than the atomic bomb detonated on Hiroshima by the United States during World War II. The visit of a US strategic nuclear submarine to a South Korean port, according to ROK Minister of National Defense Lee Jong-Sup, indicates the US willingness to apply the principle of extended deterrence on the Korean Peninsula. It also demonstrates to Pyongyang the superior capabilities of the South Korea-US military alliance. “This is a purely political and symbolic action: it is strange to use SLBMs against Pyongyang from such a distance, but the materialization of the nuclear umbrella was more than demonstrative,” Russian military specialists from the “Watfor Project” said.

The DPRK immediately responded by launching two short-range missiles toward the Sea of Japan. The launches were carried out from Sunan Air Base near Pyongyang, according to the ROK Armed Forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to preliminary data, the missiles flew 550-600 kilometers before falling into the sea area outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

South Korean authorities as well as the ruling and opposition parties condemned the missile launches as “serious provocations” and violations of UN Security Council resolutions. The opposition, on the other hand, raised alarm over the president’s aggressive attitude toward North Korea, claiming that it was fueling public dread and anxiety. “We hope that President Yoon Suk-yeol will show determination to restore the dialogue channel between the two Koreas.”

But Yoon did just the opposite. On July 19, he defiantly boarded a US submarine, and before that he said that “the USS Kentucky’s deployment shows clearly the commitment of South Korea and the United States to regularly deploy US strategic assets and strengthen the credibility of extended deterrence.” “By doing so, we will make North Korea not even dream of carrying out a nuclear provocation, and we warned clearly that should North Korea carry out a provocation, it will lead to the end of that regime.” Gen. Paul LaCamera, United Nations Command / Combined Forces Command / United States Forces Korea commander, also pointed out that the strategic nuclear submarine’s visit to Busan is a demonstration of the United States’ unwavering commitment to the alliance with the ROK.

On July 20, North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun-nam respondedhttps://telegra.ph/Zayavlenie-dlya-pechati-ministra-oborony-KNDR-Kan-Sun-Nama-07-20 from the North.  In defiance of the repeated warning by the DPRK and the serious concern of the international community, the US and the group of traitors of the “Republic of Korea” (ROK) held a meeting of the “nuclear consultative group” on July 18 to discuss the plan for using nuclear weapons against the DPRK. In particular, they brought an Ohio-class strategic nuclear submarine to the Busan Port operation base, “which means strategic nuclear weapons have been deployed on the Korean peninsula for the first time after 40 odd years.”

According to Pyongyang, “this shows that the US scenario for a nuclear attack upon the DPRK and its implementation have entered the most critical stage of visualization and systemization, and the phase of a military clash on the Korean peninsula has surfaced as a dangerous reality beyond all sorts of imagination and presumption.”

Therefore, “I remind the US military of the fact that the ever-increasing visibility of the deployment of the strategic nuclear submarine and other strategic assets may fall under the conditions of the use of nuclear weapons specified in the DPRK law on the nuclear force policy. The DPRK’s doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons allows the execution of necessary action procedures in case a nuclear attack is launched against it or it is judged that the use of nuclear weapons against it is imminent.”

What did Minister Kang mean by that? If the audience remembers the author’s analysis of Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine, the use of nuclear weapons is allowed not only in response to an actual attack, but also to what appears to be immediate preparation for it, so as not to wait until the enemy has optimal capabilities and launch a preventive strike earlier. It is no surprise that even among American pragmatists, proposals were made to exchange information from satellite surveillance systems with the DPRK in real time so that the North does not misinterpret such activity as preparation for a strike and launches its own. In addition, Kang hinted that “the US military side should realize that its nuclear assets have entered extremely dangerous waters.”

In response on July 20, a ROK Defense Ministry spokesman indicated that the Kentucky’s appearance was “a justified defensive measure related to the ever-increasing threat from North Korea.“ And any nuclear attack by Pyongyang against the South Korean-US alliance will result in an immediate, superior and decisive response, and ultimately the destruction of the North Korean regime.

At the same time, the US State Department said that the Washington declaration promising the regular deployment of US strategic weapons in the ROK and the start of the work of the nuclear security advisory group are well-thought-out responses to the DPRK’s actions that inflame the situation in the region.

Against that backdrop, South Korea held confirmation hearings for Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho, who has sparked controversy for his hawkish stance on North Korea. Recall that he wrote in 2019 that the path to unification would open when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “regime is overthrown and North Korea is liberated.”

On July 21, a USAF RC-135S Cobra Ball reconnaissance aircraft took off from Kadena Base in Japan and barreled in airspace over the Sea of Japan. A day earlier, another US Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft was spotted in the air over areas adjacent to the DMZ.

On July 22, North Korea launched several cruise missiles toward the Yellow Sea. Their type is not yet known, but they are believed to be the new Khwasal-1 or Khwasal-2 cruise missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads and are more accurate and compact than ballistic missiles.

On the morning of July 24, a nuclear-powered US submarine, the USS Annapolis, entered a naval base on Jeju Island. “The purpose of the port call is to replenish military supplies during the operational mission.”

In response, on May 25, the DPRK launched two short-range ballistic missiles toward the Sea of Japan, which flew about 400 kilometers and fell into the East Sea.

All these actions, however, took place against the background of preparations to mark the 70th anniversary of the conditional end of the Korean War on July 27. And this is the date when both sides traditionally make bellicose statements that if the enemy comes again, they will be repulsed again.

The author feels that Milley’s statements go along with continuing claims that the DPRK is about to conduct a nuclear test or carry out a provocation of comparable magnitude, even though there were about ten dates in 2022–23 on which Pyongyang should have detonated a bomb but somehow did not do so. In addition, references to the unpredictability or even more so the insanity of another country’s leader mean to the author that “we don’t understand or don’t want to understand the reasons why they do it, and explain our powerlessness to predict their actions with such arguments.”

But such “they’re about to attack, we have to do something (and it’s best to strike first)” statements often have a very different effect, especially if the other side is not going to attack. Not coincidentally, even the right-wing Korea Times wonders: what if Pyongyang interprets Milley’s remarks as a statement by America that it “could” strike them within days and without much warning? After all, in 1994, Bill Clinton’s administration planned to bomb the North’s nuclear facilities, but canceled it allegedly after ROK President Kim Young-sam said he would not send a single South Korean soldier to a war between America and North Korea.  In 2017, Trump, albeit privately, spoke of preemptive attacks on the North, not ruling out the use of nuclear bombs. The ROK president’s demonstrative visit to the USS Kentucky is also easy to interpret in such a way that the conservative administration would support any US move against the North, including a preemptive strike.

And while the two sides dispensed with decent statements on July 27, the media hype around Milley’s remarks shows that tensions are rising.


Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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