Today, Saturday 30 March, North Korea said that it had entered a “state of war” with South Korea following the participation of US B-2 stealth bombers in a military exercise targeting the peninsula. This is the latest in a series of escalations since the North’s 12 February nuclear test.
The declaration that North Korea is in a “state of war” came after Pyongyang had said, on 26 March, that it was notifying the UN Security Council that the US and South Korea had created “conditions for an imminent nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula”. North Korea added that it had put the country’s strategic rocket forces on standby, with threats to attack targets in South Korea, on the US mainland, and the US military bases in Hawaii and Guam. The following day, on 27 March, Pyongyang warned that its military action “will include our powerful sovereignty-protecting pre-emptive nuclear attack”.
Saturday’s “state of war” declaration warned: “If the US and the South Korean puppet group perpetrate a military provocation for igniting a war against the DPRK [North Korea] in any area, including the five islands in the West Sea of Korea or in the area along the Military Demarcation Line, it will not be limited to a local war but develop into an all-out war, a nuclear war.”
The North Korean threats are being treated with the utmost seriousness, but there is still a strong feeling that the crisis will not go beyond rhetoric, for instance Russian sources in Pyongyang reported today (30 March) that all is calm in the capital and that “life in the city is as usual”.
Equally, South Korean sources are also reporting that the North is showing “no unusual military moves” and that – as of 8.30am local time on 30 March – border crossings to and from the joint industrial complex in the border town of Kaesong were “proceeding normally”. The Kaesong complex consists of some 123 South Korean factories utilizing cheap North Korean labour.
South Korea is also continuing to send out some positive signals to Pyongyang. On Wednesday, for instance, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said that Seoul remained open to renewing inter-Korean dialogue at any time. And South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye remains committed to a three-stage trust-building process, starting with humanitarian aid, then aid for agriculture, and finally large-scale investments in social and economic infrastructure.
Russia, for one, seems to be impressed by the constraint shown by both Seoul and the US. On 30 March, a Russian foreign ministry source said: “The situation is, of course, very tense and dangerous. Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs: the reaction of the US and South Korea has been measured, in a way calm…This is precisely why developments are not yet irreversible.”
China, on the other hand, continues to perplex, and it still seems unwilling to rein in Pyongyang. For instance, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua published a commentary on 30 March largely blaming the US for the rising tension. It blamed the “chronic crisis” on the “punishment-heavy” approach of the US towards North Korea, including “rounds after rounds of severe sanctions against Pyongyang and [the holding of] large-scale military drills regularly in the region”.
It is possible that China believes it can (at one remove) frighten the US and South Korea into a more conciliatory approach towards Pyongyang, but such tactics – even if successful in the Korean Peninsula - can only reinforce US determination to “pivot” towards Asia, and it can only increase the welcome that this “pivot” is receiving from Japan, South Korea, and the US’s other Asian allies. Equally, the current escalation can only boost the case for continuing to develop the US’s missile-defence capabilities in the region.
In recent analysis, we have suggested that the most worrying aspect of all this is what it says about China’s poor judgement. Its policies appear to be self-defeating. Russian sources, just as perplexed, have another even more worrying explanation. They say that China may be encouraging Pyongyang to bait the US in order to test US responses, and its resolve to stand by a key ally, ahead of possible further Chinese escalations in the East and South China seas. Beijing may also be letting Washington know exactly how far it would be prepared to use North Korea, as a diversion, should the US seek to challenge Beijing over any moves to establish sovereignty over disputed territories.
Whatever the true motives may be for China’s approach to the Korean crisis (poor judgement, a test for the US, a warning for the US), none of them are good.
From: Courcy’s Intelligence Service, c/o Intelligence Research Ltd, 61 Old Street, London, EC1V 9HW. Email: editorial@ courcyint.com. Phone: 020-7251-0012