04.04.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

“Freedom Shield” and Other Events of February-March 2024. Part One: Is The Border Under Attack?

“Freedom Shield” and Other Events of February-March 2024

On February 10, 2024, the Lunar New Year holiday, Yoon Suk-yeol visited the Second Marine Corps Division in Gimpo, inspected the Cheonmoo multiple rocket launcher system, and urged troops to be prepared for any North Korean provocations. “If the enemy provokes, you have to sternly and overwhelmingly respond under the principle of ‘act first, report later’ to completely crush the enemy’s will.

On February 11, the US Navy’s Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force arrived in the Republic of Korea to participate in a joint South Korea-US military exercise taking place near Pohang from February 1 to 22, 2024. The exercise focused on tactical interoperability, including combat training and air support. At the same time, the ROK Armed Forces Command launched a joint South Korea-US Marine Corps cold-weather exercise near Pyeongchang, which lasted until February 20, 2024. 110 soldiers from the ROK Marine Corps Reconnaissance Unit and the US 2nd Marine Division trained in combat capabilities, survival and maneuvering in snowy mountainous conditions.

In the North, on this day, February 11, the DPRK Academy of National Defense Science conducted test firing of 240-mm MLRSs. They tested new guided missiles as well as a fire control and monitoring system. It is stated that “the strategic value and utility of the 240 mm-caliber multiple rocket launcher will be reevaluated and its role on the battlefield be increased, according to such rapid technical improvement.”

 On February 14, North Korea once again launched several cruise missiles from a coastal area northeast of Wonsan towards the Sea of Japan. This was the fifth cruise missile launch by North Korea since the beginning of the year.

As the KCNA later reported, Kim Jong-un “guided the evaluation test-fire of new-type surface-to-sea missile Padasuri-6 to be equipped by the navy” on that day.

The launched missiles (number not reported) flew for 1400+ seconds and hit the target accurately. Therefore, a satisfied Kim explained why anti-ship cruise missiles were needed: “the puppet ROK is trying to defend a fictitious so-called ‘Northern Limit Line’ that has no international legal basis or legitimate justification, and under pretexts such as control over third-country vessels and fishing boats, maritime patrols, moves warships of various classes into our waters and flagrantly violates our sovereignty.” The latter should be defended “by the practical use of armed forces and action, not by figurative expressions, statements and written publications.” And “if our enemies violate our recognized maritime boundary line, it will be considered a violation of our sovereignty and an armed provocation.”

This is where the South got seriously worried about what would now happen to the Northern Line. It is considered a maritime border in the ROK, but it was drawn unilaterally by the US-led UN Command after the 1950-53 Korean War. The DPRK has continually demanded that the line be moved further south because, in an unbiased view, the threat to the coast is quite high. Most maritime incidents have also taken place around the disputed maritime boundary. In 1999, 2002 and 2009, there were three maritime clashes in the disputed waters, which different sides “won.” The Cheonan corvette, which the ROK officially said was torpedoed by an invisible and silent submarine, sank in the same area in March 2010.

The fact that Kim Jong-un “gave important instructions to strengthen military readiness in the border waters in the northern part of Yeonpyeong and Baekryong islands, where enemy warships, including destroyers, convoy ships and fast boats, frequently violate our border,” was taken as a sign that the DPRK would now perceive crossing its version of the line as a border violation.

On the next day, February 15, Colonel Lee Seong-jun, a spokesman for the ROK Armed Forces Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the South Korean military was ready to defend the Northern Limit Line. “This is an unchanging maritime border, and we will firmly respond to any provocation.” Commenting on information about the successful test launch of the new Padasuri-6 anti-ship missile, Lee said it could be a North Korean version of Russia’s Kh-35 Uran cruise missile. The missile has previously been shown in military parades, but further analysis is needed to ascertain its effectiveness, and the South Korean Navy’s destroyers and patrol ships are equipped with its own anti-ship guided missiles, including the SM-2 surface-to-air missile.

Hong Min, a Senior Research Fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, adds that “the missile appears to be designed to counter South Korean and United States naval capabilities, such as US aircraft carriers.”

Just after North Korea reported testing a new type of anti-ship missile, two of the newest US Boeing RC-135V and RC-135U spy planes flew over the Korean peninsula. The former flew over Incheon and the southern part of the capital region, while the latter, taking off from a US base in Okinawa, flew over the south of the capital region, Yanyang County, Gangwon Province, and the East Sea.

On February 15, the KCNA reported that the President of the State Affairs of the DPRK “gave field guidance to a major munitions factory.” It was not specified which one, but the bottom line was that Kim Jong-un specifically familiarized himself with the situation of modernization of production processes and current production and set tasks for this factory and other major main factories to continuously advance modernization and continuously expand productivity in accordance with the dictates of the developing era of ultra-modern defense science and technology. He also outlined guidelines for the Second Economy Commission (which oversees the military industrial sector) to get to work on an important new plan.

On February 17, in response to the spy plane flights, the KCNA noted that “espionage by US and puppet Republic of Korea air pirates” has increased and “this is a clear threat to our state, a serious provocation that plunges the situation in the region into an irreversible catastrophic situation.” Pyongyang pointed out that US RC-135 Combat Sent and Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft, South Korea’s E-737 Peace Eye long-range radar detection aircraft and Global Hawk UAVs have been trying to gather significant amounts of intelligence in the country’s interior on an almost daily basis since the beginning of 2024. However, “the closer the spy planes of hostile nations come to the airspace of one of the two belligerent countries, the clearer it will become what danger is entailed. Air pirates who raid without reckoning for their lives will not escape the bitter fate of the night moth.”

On February 23, 2024, the ROK conducted a joint air exercise involving fifth-generation F-35A fighters, as well as KF-16, F-15K and F-5E/F fighters of the Korean Air Force, and F-35A fighters of the US Air Force, which were stationed at Kadena Base in Japan and temporarily transferred to Osan Base. The parties practiced defensive actions to intercept aircraft and cruise missiles of the opposing force.

On March 1, US B-52H strategic bombers appeared in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula, launching from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. At first glance, their overflight looked like an ordinary military exercise, but this time it contained a more frightening message.

Three days earlier, the US Air Force published a photo of a B-52H from Andersen Base with an AGM-183A (Arrow) missile mounted under the wing. It was commented as “hypersonic weapons familiarization training”, which was thus the first time it had been deployed on Guam. The projectile had a yellow stripe along the hull indicating its fully operational nature.

The reason this photo is controversial is that in March 2023, after six failed test launches, the Arrow was withdrawn from development, but the US military remains attached to the missile, which, if perfected, could fly to a range of 500 miles (926 km) at speeds up to Mach 20. This means that if the missile is launched from the area, Pyongyang would be hit within 110 seconds and Beijing within 140 seconds.

Here a pause is needed to consider the extent to which the actions described above and the DPRK’s new policies may increase conflicts on the disputed maritime border. So far, North Korean rhetoric still boils down to the reasoning that if the enemy encroaches on our territory, he will receive a many times more powerful response and will pay dearly. However, the question arises as to where the maritime border acceptable to the DPRK will now be, since the “Northern Limit Line” is nothing more than a “ghost line” for Pyongyang.

Theoretically, the situation is slightly “suspended” until the summer session of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK, where amendments to the Constitution concerning the territorial borders of North Korea will have to be approved. As Kim Jong-un and other members of the North Korean leadership have pointed out, Article 3 of the ROK Constitution defines the country’s borders as the entire Korean peninsula as well as its islands. North Korea is perceived as part of its home territory, illegally taken away by an “anti-state organization.”The North may adopt a similar phrase, but the option of defining the DPRK within its current borders is not ruled out. This, in particular, is indicated by the change of symbols: where earlier emblems depicted the Korean peninsula, today they show only its northern half, i.e. the real borders of the DPRK.

But what will happen, in relation to this at sea, is a very interesting question, and perhaps the North Koreans will explicitly point out where their version of a maritime border runs. Then the situation will depend on the goodwill of the parties, because, on the one hand, both the North and the South engage in aggressive rhetoric and show no desire to concede even an inch, while on the other hand, the authorities in both countries are pragmatists who do not crave conflict just for the sake of it.

Therefore, unfortunately, we are left to wait and watch the situation develop, moving on to the next parts of the article about the large-scale maneuvers of the US and ROK and the North Korean response.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” 

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