Will Korean Tensions Lead to War?

It used to be gun boat diplomacy. Now, intimidation has become aerial and advanced.


S. Korean activists chant “Liberate North Korean compatriots” at peace park near the DMZ, May 4, 2013. Credit: Wikipedia

The Obama administration has been insisting that the sorties flown by the two B-2 Stealth bombers in military exercises with South Korea were designed to reassure Seoul and Tokyo on the one hand while giving Pyongyang a nudge in the direction of talks.

The tension on the Peninsula over the last few months has seen a variety of approaches including threats, counter-threats, conciliatory gestures and indifference.

Describing the mission, the US military issued the following statement: “This mission by two B-2 Spirit bombers assigned to 509th Bomb Wing… involved flying more than 6,500 miles to the Korean Peninsula, dropping inert munitions on the Jik Do Range, and returning to the continental US in a single, continuous mission.”

Such techniques are dangerous and, as John Hudson in Foreign Policy (Mar 28) notes, expensive, given that the bombers flew from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, dropped their bogus cargo, and flew back. The Center for Public Integrity reported in 2012 that the B-2 is so precious and costly it has become virtually redundant, $3 billion machines that the administration can’t risk losing in battle. It also costs a staggering $135 thousand per hour to run. They are the high-maintenance Cinderellas of the military establishment.

Kim Jong-un is angry but probably terrified as well. His reaction on hearing about the exercise was to order North Korea to be ready to strike the US and South Korean targets with their arsenal of missiles. Goodness, say some North Korea observers, is this a change of heart, a different beat we are seeing? Kim Jon-il trafficked in the game of threats, but his booming bark rarely transpired into any bite. His son, in contrast, seems to be spluttering with rage.

Casual deployment of massive power, or at least the capability of massive power, is not necessarily a recipe for reliable diplomacy. Such operations as Foal Eagle may well be planned as part of regular military exercises, but that hardly makes them credible. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has claimed that the unprecedented decision to use B-2 bombers to drop dummy munitions in drills with South Korea were part of the routine. “I don’t think we’re doing anything extraordinary or provocative or out of the … orbit of what nations do to protect their own interests.” F-22 Stealth fighters have also been ordered to South Korean bases.

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With such a display of firepower, it would be hard to imagine that no effect was intended against the North Koreans. Rather, or so goes the official line from the Pentagon, it was a show of American will for its allies, Japan and South Korea. Presumably, given this line of reasoning, a Russian bomber drill using dummy weapons on the Alaskan border to encourage its own allies would be greeted with quiet understanding from officials in Washington. Such interpretations make Pyongyang the unstable inmates of the asylum, giving the impression that Hagel and company are cold sober thinkers entirely justified by their actions.

Given all of this, and the sequestration agenda, the planners in the Pentagon were surely caught midway. Belligerence, even the sniff of it, and cost cutting are not necessarily two sides of the same coin. Not so, claimed the Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey: “[I]n light of what’s happened in North Korea and the provocation and the necessity of assuring our allies that we’re there with them, we would have found a way to do this.”

Commentators on the recent escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula are divided. Reading the reactions of North Korea watchers is much like reading swirling weather patterns with frequent gusts of wind. This becomes understandable given the sheer unpredictability of the regional actors, topped by the disposition of the Kim regime.

South Korea’s newly elected President Park Geun-hye, has offered a range of options. One the one hand, a preemptive strike has been proposed if Pyongyang demonstrates an imminent threat of attack. “I believe that we should make a strong and immediate retaliation without any other political considerations if (the North) stages any provocation against our people” (South China Morning Post, Apr 2).

On the other hand, she has decided to announce a “three stage” policy of aid and assistance to Pyongyang. The incentive here is that North Korea must return to previous agreements between the two Koreas while Seoul reduces emphasis (or “delinks”) on denuclearization. “From the start, the Korean Peninsula trust-building process does not link to North Korea’s denuclearization,” claimed a high-ranking ministry official.

We are witnessing parallel worlds of engagement – over hostility promising apocalypse, a possible return to the diplomatic table, and comic though highly threatening shadow boxing. The danger here lies in who will call the bluff of the other.

Unpredictability is no recipe for sane, stable policy.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.