Things seemed to have calmed on the Korean peninsula for now. This despite the fact that the U.S. and South Korea are continuing their outrageously provocative Foal Eagle “war games” through April 30. The Foal Eagle is one of the largest and longest military exercises in the world. This year’s military exercises brought the peninsula to such a volatile place that even a senior Obama administration official was quoted in the Wall Street Journal admitting the U.S. had pushed things too far. The unnamed official stated, “The concern was that we were heightening the prospect of misperceptions on the part of the North Koreans, and that that could lead to miscalculations”. Should a “miscalculation” have taken place, it could very well have led to an open conflict with catastrophic results for not only both the Koreas, but also the region. It’s very possible that a conventional war with North Korea could go nuclear.
The same Wall Street Journal article states several Obama officials confirmed that the most provocative actions taken during the “war games” had been decided months ago:
The Obama administration approved [the plan] earlier this year. Dubbed “the playbook,” it laid out the sequence and publicity plans for U.S. shows of force during annual war games with South Korea. The playbook included well-publicized flights in recent weeks near North Korea by nuclear-capable B-52 and stealth B-2 bombers, as well as advanced F-22 warplanes.
The North Korean government understandably sees these war games as dress rehearsals for an invasion and a simulated nuclear bombing. Despite the U.S. “dialing back” its most confrontational shows of force, it is keeping a nuclear armed submarine in the area and will continue its “strategic patience” approach which comprises: strangulation through sanctions (similar to what was done to Iraq in the 1990s), unjust applications of international law (international law means punishing those who don’t obey U.S. orders), absence of a good faith effort to negotiate, and implicit threats from the most powerful and savage military in the world.
North Korea responds to the U.S. provocations in the usual manner with threats that the U.S. media report as the screeching of crazed maniacs. However, North Korea, a country with an annual GDP of 40 billion dollars (0r 1/750th of the U.S. GDP) and a military that utilizes antiquated 1970s and 1980s technology and is plagued by shortages of spare parts and fuel, could be wiped off the face of the earth in a war with the U.S./South Korea.
Despite North Korea’s inability to pose a threat beyond its region the U.S. media uses the North’s over the top rhetoric to portray it as a terrifying military power that could destroy the U.S. at any minute. Americans then believe the U.S.’ incredibly belligerent actions are justified. In fact, a CNN poll on April 7th found that 41% of Americans believed North Korea posed an immediate threat to the United States and 51% of Americans polled believed diplomatic and economic means alone would be unable to end the crisis.
But anyone that knows the history of the region is familiar with the well-worn roles the U.S. and North Korea play again and again. This means that another escalation on the peninsula is only a matter of time.
These escalations may be more dangerous than ever because South Korea has relaxed the rules of engagement, which allows front line commanders greater freedom to respond to North Korean attacks without having to ask permission from the army chain of command. This is especially troubling given that former president Lee Myung-bak (from same conservative Saenuri Party as current president Park Geun-hye) stated that he wanted to order retaliatory air strikes on the North after the Novermber 2010 North artillery attack on the South island of Yeonpyeong-do, but the rules of engagement and the ROK-US alliance prevented him. Another unnerving development is the South’s promise of a harsh response to any attack from the North.
Major General Kim Yong-hyun from South Korea’s Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff was quoted in the New York Times saying, “If North Korea attempts a provocation our military will forcefully and decisively strike not only the origin of provocation and its supporting forces but also its command leadership”.
To understand the Korean crisis and the North’s “insane” threats one should consider a few points:
1) One should recall the “lashing out” the U.S. did during the Cuban missile crisis when Russian nuclear weapons were being brought to within striking distance of the U.S. The difference was that JFK was willing to play Russian Roulette with the Northern hemisphere before he would allow the U.S. to be subjected to a tiny fraction of what the USSR was forced to live with.
Though the U.S. government found it unacceptable to live under serious USSR threats North Korea is forced to live with the very genuine threats of the United States military. It goes without saying that since 2003 the U.S. has invaded: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and is engaged in covert and drone warfare in countless countries. The U.S. also surrounds the North with massive military bases in South Korea and Japan. Despite the North’s threatening rhetoric, it’s the North that has actually had to endure a realistic threat of nuclear attack since the Korean War continuing up through today. Until 1991 the U.S. kept nuclear weapons in South Korea.
2) North Korea’s “lashing out” is a long-standing policy and far from insane. Until the U.S. is willing to make good faith efforts to negotiate, North Korea is forced to play the only card it has—threats. If the North can create a very tense situation it figures it may be able to get the U.S. to back off a bit and maybe even receive some concessions. The North takes its cues from an old playbook that goes back to the 1970s.
3) North Korea was very nearly invaded in 1994 by Bill Clinton’s administration. A war with the North could have ended with millions dead in North and South Korea and fighting in the suburbs of Seoul (city of tens of millions). In fact, the war was only averted because Jimmy Carter went to negotiate with Pyongyang’s leadership in an unofficial mission. The North understands it is constantly under very real threat.
4) One last point of context for understanding the North’s actions is the unimaginable destruction waged on it by the U.S. during the Korean War. This is something that is still very much in the consciousness of North Koreans and is something often brought up to foreigners who visit their country. The U.S. dropped 635,000 tons of bombs during the Korean War (compared to 650,000 tons on Germany in WWII) and most of this was on North Korea where people were forced to live underground in caves, tunnels, and canyons to avoid being killed during the war. The U.S. bombed North Korea’s dams wiping out villages and destroying their means of irrigation. Hungarian correspondent during the Korean War Tibor Meray witnessed the “destruction committed by the American forces. Everything which moved in North Korea was a military target, peasants in the fields were often machine gunned by pilots” Meray saw “complete devastation between the Yalu River and the capital” of North Korea. There were “no more cities in North Korea,” he reported.
The U.S. “containment” policy of North Korea uses isolation, sanctions, and threats in the same ways that were done to the other “axis of evil” countries. A large part of the sanctions and economic strangulation is just punishment for disobeying the U.S., but it’s also likely that Washington believes it can help bring about a collapse of North Korea. Since Washington has been predicting the collapse of North Korea since the end of the cold war, this seems unlikely. However, the sanctions will continue to punish a starving and helpless population of North Koreans for their government’s actions and the U.S. military’s outrageously provocative actions will likely bring the peninsula to the verge of war again before too long.