Fear of war

Fear of war

Korean peninsula on the boil

Fresh sanctions include measures to block bulk cash transfers that are being used to support alleged illicit activities by the North.

The fragile peace in the Korean peninsula is threatened by North Korea’s bellicose posture after the UN Security Council voted unanimously for tough new sanctions following the nuclear test on February 12. To the North’s frustration, its closest ally and patron China joined hands with the US in drafting a resolution aimed at telling Pyongyang that the international community condemns its ballistic missile and nuclear tests as well as its repeated violation of the earlier resolutions.

Pyongyang’s reaction was predictable: it quickly threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the US because it is using its ‘puppet’ South Korea to prepare for denuclearising the North.

The fresh sanctions include new measures to block bulk transfers of cash that are being used to support alleged illicit activities by the North, and further restrict ties to North Korea’s financial sector. They also call for a crackdown on suspicious cargo from the North, among other measures. North Korea flatly rejected the sanctions, and pledged to push ahead with its efforts to become a nuclear state.

North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman’s statement carried out by the official news agency said: “Since the United States is about to ignite a nuclear war, we will be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor in order to protect our supreme interest.” Pyongyang even threatened to launch this strike as early as March 11 when the US-South Korea military drills moved into a full-scale phase as it had declared to nullify the 1953 armistice agreement.

The war of words between the two siblings following the UN sanctions reached new heights when officials in South Korea responded to North Korean threats with harsh words of their own. South Korea’s defence ministry spokesman retorted “if North Korea attacks South Korea with a nuclear weapon, Kim Jong-un’s regime will perish from the earth.” Pyongyang went ballistic by stepping up its typically fiery rhetoric even further, saying it will soon nullify all non-aggression pacts with South Korea and cut off some of the few lines of contact the two countries still have. Responding to the UN measures, Pyongyang called them as an “act of war” and threatened to turn Seoul and Washington into ‘seas of fire.’

What does this mean for East Asian security? Firstly, bombastic threats by North Korea about turning Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’ are nothing new, and neither are threats to pull further away from South Korea. But this time, they are clearer and more specific than typically seen. Pyongyang’s words cannot be taken seriously as it routinely resorts to such bluster. Even if it launches few weapons, these are thought not to have the range to hit mainland US. Yet, Washington cannot ignore to such threats. 

Expressing discontent

Secondly, all this bluster may just be North Korea’s attempt at being seriously acknowledged as a nuclear-armed, independent country. Pyongyang’s threats are its way of expressing discontent. Thirdly, Pyongyang is also sending a warning message to newly-elected President Park Geun-hye and wants other countries to acknowledge it as a nuclear power and to start negotiations based on the fact.

Apart from nullifying the 1953 armistice agreement, Pyongyang cutoff the military hotline, which the US-led UN command in South Korea maintained with the North through the village in Panmunjom. Though not an official diplomatic channel, it is mostly used to communicate the times and locations of military activities in order to prevent unintended clashes like the one that happened in 2010. Shutting down the hotline as the US and South Korea were preparing to conduct their annual field training exercises, which have contributed to the general uptick in regional tensions, does not bode well. When South Korea detected signs that the North was carrying out its own exercises off the country’s east coast and Kim Jong-un reportedly paid a visit to North Korean military units guarding the border with South Korea, it raised the spectre of an actual confrontation.

Though people in South Korea are generally used to such crazy behaviour by North Korea, this time the alarm level is high. Recent opinion surveys suggest that as much as 66.7 per cent want their country to go nuclear in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. Similar voices are being heard in Japan as well as threat perceptions increase. With a conservative nationalist prime minister Abe Shinzo in office, the prospect of Japan revisiting its nuclear option in response to North Korea’s nuclear threat and South Korea’s response could be a possibility. This is a dreading scenario.
The only country that can rein in on North Korea is China. China is the North’s main economic allay.

China’s patience seems to have exhausted by the behaviour of its ‘little brother.’ Though China this time joined the US and other members to vote unanimously in support of a fresh round of sanctions, China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi said sanctions are not the way to properly handle the North Korea nuclear issue and safeguard peace on the Korean peninsula. He said dialogue is the only way to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. While urging calm, he asked all sides to return to the long-stalled six-nation talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear programmes. The peninsula remains in a flux.

(The writer is a former senior fellow at IDSA, New Delhi)