A Potential War Looms over the Korean Peninsula
Prof Rajaram Panda

Pyongyang seems determined to keep tensions in the Korean Peninsula alive. In a provocative start to 2024, it launched new cruise missile test for submarine. By doing this, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un flaunted his growing nuclear arsenal, thereby threatening a nuclear conflict with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

What emboldens the North Korean leader suddenly to choose such provocative acts? It seems Kim Jong-un gained confidence from the advancement of his nuclear weapons programmes after strengthening ties with Russia and looks to break out of diplomatic isolation and strengthening his position against the US.[1] Pyongyang is already cosy with Beijing and maintains a kind of relationship which is often described as relations between lips and teeth. Now becoming closer with Russia adds to his strategy of maintaining a sense of external threat, which in turn enables him to consolidate tighter control over a populace suffering from prolonged economic woes.

Since the beginning of 2024, Kim Jong-un has been making provocative statements. His choice of this time when the US and South Korea shall have elections for new leaderships is significant as he intends to put pressure on the new leaderships. Kim’s statements follow his hostile statements during the year-end political conference accusing South Korea of hostility. This was soon followed by firing of hundreds of artillery rounds on three consecutive days near a disputed western sea boundary with South Korea. This provoked Seoul to conduct similar firings in response. Though Pyongyang justified its actions by saying that no casualties or damage on either side was done, the disputed sea boundary proved that it could emerge as a crisis point.

As if to prove that Kim is itching for a fight and prepare ground for a larger regional conflict, at a meeting of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim reiterated on 15 January that his country does not recognise the Northern Limit Line. This line was drawn up by the US-led UN Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Pyongyang’s position is that the sea boundary currently controlled by South Korea encroaches deeply into its waters and thus invalid. Kim warned that if South Korea “violates even 0.001 millimetre of its territorial land, air and waters, it will be considered a war provocation”.

It may be recalled that in 2018, both Koreas reached a military agreement intended to reduce border tensions which had established border buffers and no-fly zones. Concerns about a military clash grew when this agreement came under threat of being nullified because of Pyongyang changing stance. Since the western sea boundary was poorly marked, this became subject of different interpretations, leading to bloody naval skirmishes between the two Koreas in 1999, 2002 and 2009. North Korea allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship in March 2010, killing 46 South Korean sailors[2], and its artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island near the disputed border in November 2010 killed four South Koreans.[3]

When North Korea conducted its first flight test of a new solid-fuel intermediate-range missile on 14 January, presumably tipped with a hypersonic warhead, it breached the threshold for an imminent regional conflict. By doing so, Kim was proving his determination to perfect more powerful, harder-to-detect weapons designed to strike remote US targets in the Pacific, including the military hub of Guam.

The significance of Pyongyang’s advancement in weapons development evidenced by the January 14 test demonstrated that it was an improvement on its existing intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which are powered by liquid-fuel engines and must be loaded with fuel before a launch and cannot stay fuelled for long. The latest launch proved that missiles containing solid propellants are ready to launch faster and are easier to move and conceal and becomes harder for adversaries to detect and counteract.

In pursuance of its weapons advancement, Pyongyang tested hypersonic weapons designed to exceed five times the speed of sound few times since 2021. But those are yet to be perfected. If Pyongyang succeeds in perfecting as it is determined, they could pose a challenge to missile defence systems because of their speed and manoeuvrability. As of now doubts remain if Pyongyang has been able to maintain consistent speed faster than Mach 5 during the tests.

In 2023, when North Korea tested a solid-fuel ICBM for the first time, it transpired that North Korea has in its possession a broad range of solid-fuel short-range missiles targeting South Korea. It also proved that its weapons sophistication was designed to target the US mainland. It further became clear that a day after the ICBM test, Kim declared at the Supreme People’s Assembly that North Korea is abandoning its long-standing goal of reconciliation with South Korea and ordered rewriting of its constitution to declare that South Korea is its most hostile foreign adversary. Citing the US-South Korea joint military exercises following its weapons testing activity, Kim accused South Korea acting as “top-class stooges” of Washington and would not be dissuaded from using his nuclear weapons to annihilate South Korea if provoked.

On needs to understand the psychology of Kim’s mind that there is a perceptible change in his attitude towards inter-Korean relations and the way he saw the US role in the Korean Peninsula, a clear departure from his position during the Trump Presidency. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in played a pivotal role. Moon facilitated two summits between Kim and Trump in Singapore and Hanoi. The summits did not yield any positive outcome. But it demonstrated that Kim was willing to engage both with South Korea and the US to find solution on the Korean issue.

When Kim perceived that South Korea was not willing to play the role of a middle man to extract concession but an obstacle to its efforts to carve out a more assertive presence in global affairs and negotiate an easing of US-led sanctions from a position of strength, he hardened his stance.

To demonstrate his displeasure towards Yoon-suk Yeol’s handling of inter-Korean issue, Kim ordered that a huge arch in Pyongyang symbolising reconciliation with South Korea be removed after he called it an “eyesore”. He, therefore, test-fired the cruise missiles designed to be launched from submarines with a view to fulfilling his goal to build a nuclear-armed navy to counter the growing “external threats”. It remains unclear if Kim shall succeed to realise his aim without outside help. Probably Kim hopes to get help either from China or Russia to make this possible. At the moment, North Korea with its limitations would require considerable time, resources and technological improvements to build several submarines that could travel quietly and reliably execute attacks. However, if seen the advancement in weapons development over the past decade and Kim’s determination, this too could be achievable. The bigger question is: can Kim compete with the US arsenal which is more advanced and sophisticated.

The Korean Peninsula is thus in a period of great political unrest. If one examines deeply the stances of North Korea and South Korea and their reliance on China/Russia and the US respectively and the likely policy prescriptions both are likely to pursue, the current moment appears to be greatest crisis on the Korean Peninsula since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. South Korean people were unconcerned with the behaviour of North Korea for a long time and sensed no security threat to their country. That narrative appears to have changed as they fear of a war breaking out growing by the day.

Professor Emeritus Moon Chung-in of Yonsei University and foreign policy advisor to former South Korean President Moon Jae-in feared in a recent interview with the Hankyoreh that an accidental clash between the two Koreas at the current moment when the tensions are high runs the risk of expanding into a nuclear war. The accidental clash can begin with a conventional war but shall have the potentials to develop into a nuclear one.

Despite tensions escalating and periodic talks of engagement, there seems to be an absence of sincerity in positions the leaders of both Koreas have chosen to pursue. Both are engaged in a dangerous game of chicken, as it were. While neither side is claiming to be the instigator, both claim they shall not shy away from the possibility of it and demonstrate shows of force. The situation in the Korean Peninsula could dramatically change if Donald Trump who is bidding to be re-elected to the White House in the presidential election in November 2024 returns for a second term. In view of the impending danger of a conflict erupting and developing into a full-fledged war, it is desirable that the two Koreas should tone down the belligerent rhetoric and focus on preventive diplomacy.

The big question if North Korea’s Kim is preparing for an actual war remains unclear. There is a widely held perception that Kim Jong-un is already disillusioned with several attempts with diplomacy and, therefore, has shifted gears into preparedness to face a possible conflict. His cosiness with both China and Russia further emboldens to remain not shy to opt for a belligerent approach.[4]

Kim’s latest position can be judged from his latest position towards South Korea. The world knows that the two Koreas remain technically at war since the Korean War (1950-53) ended in just an armistice, thereby eluding a peace treaty. When a bout of diplomacy failed to resolve the inter-Korean issue, Kim chose to label South Korea as North’s “principal enemy,” thereby abandoning the reunification bid. He now threatened to enshrine in the North’s constitution a goal of “completely occupying, subjugating and reclaiming” its southern neighbour. This is an alarming scenario that demands activating diplomacy to prevent an ugly situation that could have the potential of a regional conflict to assume a global dimension. A global conflagration would be the last thing that humanity would want. Defending his position, Kim further warned that the North does not want war but shall have no intention of avoiding it either. Such open threat makes the situation on the Korean Peninsula more dangerous than it has been at any time since early June 1950.

Writing in 38 North website in January 2024, two American analysts Robert L Carlin and Siegfried S. Hecker warned that like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong-un seems to have made a strategic decision to go to war.[5] Carlin and Hecker observe: “We do not know when or how Kim plans to pull the trigger, but the danger is already far beyond the routine warnings in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo about Pyongyang’s provocations.” After the two failed summits with Trump, Kim seems to have concluded that all other options had been exhausted. Is diplomacy the last option to prevent such a possibility? That is a million-dollar question that policy makers in the US, South Korea and Japan need to address.

References

[1]“North Korean cruise missile tests add to the country’s provocative start to 2024”, 30 January 2024, The Asahi Shimbun, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/15137784
[2]See Rajaram Panda, “Cheonan Sinking: Implications for Peace in Northeast Asia”, Mainstream, vol. XLVII, no. 23, 29 May 2010, pp. 27-32. http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article2094.html
[3]See, Rajaram Panda, “North Korea’s Artillery Attack on Yeonpyeongdo: Responses and Implications”, 30 November 2010, Issue Brief,
http://www.idsa.in/issuebrief/NorthKoreaArtilleryAttackonYeonpyeongdoResponsesandImplications
[4]Jesse Johnson, “Is North Korea’s Kim preparing for an actual war”, The Japan Times, 26 January 2024, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2024/01/26/asia-pacific/politics/north-korea-kim-war/
[5]Robert L Carlin and Siegfried S. Hecker, “Is Kim Jong Un Preparing for War?”, 30 North, 11 January 2024, https://www.38north.org/2024/01/is-kim-jong-un-preparing-for-war/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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