I’m writing this on the eve of a possible escalation which has already begun at the level of words but has not yet approached the situation of 2013 or 2010 in terms of tension. The fact is that every year, inter-Korean relations undergo another test of durability, when in early March the US and South Korea conduct large-scale joint military exercises, the content of which is not a big secret. This is the working out of offensive operations, in which up to a third of the army of the ROK can participate. And since it is not possible to secretly mobilize and prepare troops before an invasion, any such maneuvers are perceived by Pyongyang as a potential preparation for an invasion. Especially, since the exercises are a good way to put significant military units in their starting positions for war, which in the absence of maneuvers would immediately cause general alarm. Every year, on the eve of these large-scale exercises, North Korea expresses its concern, and in one form or another suggests that Seoul and Washington abandon this tactic. This time, for example, it offered to exchange the cancellation of the exercises for the cancellation of further nuclear tests.
Each year, in response to such proposals by North Korea, Washington and Seoul say that exercises are their internal business, and the actions of North Korea either exacerbate the regional situation (if they were threats), or are demagogic proposals to “conduct a charm offensive”, if there was a constructive seed in them. This time, the North Korean proposals were rejected because, from the perspective of the international community, North Korea should not conduct nuclear tests, and therefore – they are an inappropriate bargaining chip.
Each year, in response to the exercises, North Korea snarls. Usually this is manifested in its own exercises and tests of short-range missiles, as well as, at least, rumors about “something more”. This time is no exception, and on 3 March 2015, Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong said that the current US and South Korea joint military maneuvers in the Korean peninsula “are unprecedentedly provocative, and it is highly likely that they will lead to war”, for which Seoul and Washington will bear responsibility. The head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry also said that the US has for more than half a century been consistently carrying out a hostile policy toward North Korea. “North Korea has to strengthen its nuclear deterrent force in order to counteract the nuclear threat from the United States, which is growing day by day. At present, North Korea has forces that make the US tremble and can fully implement preventive measures in the necessary time,” concluded the Minister.
The statement was immediately instantiated by the news that North Korea is preparing for the next test launches of “Rodong” medium-range ballistic missiles. This was reported by the South Korean news agency “Yonhap”, which stated that in recent days there have been signs of increased activity at the testing site in the province of Pyongan-pukto, in particular, two mobile launchers came there. “The probability that the test will occur is high, the South Korean military is closely monitoring the situation,” said the representative of the government. In total, according to the agency “Yonhap”, North Korea has 200 “Rodong” missiles with a range of about 1.3 thousand km.
On 2 March 2015, on the first day of enemy maneuvers, North Korea carried out two launches of ballistic missiles. According to the South Korean Ministry of Defense, “Scud” missiles were launched from mobile launchers from the area of the port of Nampo on the west coast of North Korea. The rockets flew 493 and 495 km respectively over the North and fell into international waters in the Sea of Japan. The day before the launch of the rockets, a statement was published by the Press Secretary of the Chief of Staff of the Korean People’s Army. It noted that “we will not leave the joint US-South Korean maneuvers unpunished. We will respond to them with merciless fire.” North Korea also launched two short-range missiles into the waters of the Sea of Japan.
In this context, the armed forces of the Republic of Korea do not rule out the possibility of new responses from North Korea. The newspaper “Dong-a Ilbo” writes about this. “We do not rule out the possibility of new provocations in connection with the start of the Key Resolve maneuvers,” the newspaper quoted the opinion of the ROK military. “The North is clearly trying to secure superiority in inter-Korean relations, seeking to lay the blame for the escalation of tensions in the Korean peninsula on Seoul and Washington,” Press Secretary of Defense of the ROK Kim Min Sok said in this regard.
In any case, the government of South Korea has officially asked the UN Security Council Committee for sanctions. Seoul, in particular, draw the attention to the fact that these launches were in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, and demanded a response. We are talking about resolutions No. 1695 of 2006 and No. 2094 of 2013, which prohibit Pyongyang from launching any ballistic missiles. The UN Security Council is unlikely to immediately make a real response, but now it is important to recognize Pyongyang’s actions as a violation of the resolutions.
Meanwhile, on 12 March North Korea launched another seven “ground-to-air” missiles in the direction of the East Sea. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces of the Republic of Korea, launches were conducted from 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM from the province of Hamgyong-bukto. It was noted that this was the first time SA-5 missiles were launched, whose range reached 250 km. It is reported that this time the North had not warned of the launches which the leader of the state personally oversaw.
All this we have to keep in mind next spring when articles appear in the press with headlines screaming about growing tension and the threat of a new war. We must treat them with restraint and calm. But do not forget that each twist of the “seasonal escalation” is a small contribution to the escalation into a crisis due to irrational factors that we once dissected: a situation where both sides are committed to react sternly and act according to circumstances may lead to the fact that a conflict will start due to an accidental breakdown, which will cause a consistent escalation of armed responses, and after a series of exchanges of blows inflicting ever-growing damage, “backing off” will not be possible. In addition, mutual tension increases the overall level of stress and nervous tension, as a result of which dangerous and important decisions cannot be made with a cool head, but under the influence of irrational factors or emotions.
For this reason we monitor developments every year, explaining to the audience that this is not so sudden and dangerous, and expressing the hope that this time – everything will turn out well.
Konstantin Asmolov, candidate of historical sciences, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.