It’s been a strange month in North Korea. First there was this:
It was laughable. I laughed. And then there was this:
That was reason for pause. But then again, North Korea has thrown tantrums before. And then this:
Ok, a little scarier. But still – no way they’d ever seriously consider attacking the U.S., right? And then this:
That’s… not ok. BUT they had just released a photoshopped image of their numerous hovercrafts, and there are major doubts that they could hit anything anywhere near this far away from their borders. And then this:
At this point, things get a little too real for my tastes. And then this:
The thing is, I’m not really scared about North Korea launching an attack on us. The technology isn’t there. But I am terrified of them trying. And if they try to hit someone within their range, like Japan or South Korea, then we’re really screwed. We’ve promised we’ll defend them. North Korea just moved some of their missiles to the Eastern coast; how do you think Japan is reacting to that?
But will North Korea even make that kind of strike? There was a time where we could have called it mere saber-rattling, but events over the past couple years draw that idea into question in a meaningful way. As Charles Jack Pritchard, former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea negotiations, put it yesterday:
If it were not for a precedent that was set in 2010 with the sinking of the Cheonan, the ship, South Korean ship, by the North Koreans and the artillery firing on the Yeonpyeong Island later in that year, you would say conventional wisdom says this will pass. There will be a return to normalcy.
But that precedent suggests that you must watch what’s going on. Will it turn worse?
There is reason to believe it might. North Korea has shut down the ever important Kaesong industrial complex – a source of substantial revenue for the government, and one of the last remaining vestiges of stable relations between the North and South. The ongoing framing of the decision as Kim Jong Un shooting the country in the foot misses the point; if he’s willing to make these kinds of moves, do you really think he’s approaching this situation from a survivalist/posturing to negotiate perspective?
External pressures aren’t helping. You have to remember that North Korea rules its people with an iron fist. It’s about control, and even in the past with Kim Jong Il, fear of losing that control has a habit of leading to reactionary demonstrations of power – transparent efforts to shore up confidence in leadership that can bring us dangerously close to the brink of something we can’t take back. As the Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday:
Defense analysts say that there are indeed some hints that Kim may be losing his hold on the military.
There have been defections of small units of North Korean soldiers to China – soldiers who were subsequently turned around and sent back to North Korea, says retired Brig. Gen. Russell Howard, former commander of the 1st Special Forces Group, which has an Asia Focus.
This may seem like a positive development, but it is a problem because it means that Kim may feel the need to reassert his control over the military, by beating the war drum and trying to get his troops to rally around it. The more he needs their support, the harder he might beat the drum.
Oh yeah, and this morning? Anonymous hacked the official North Korea social media accounts. Does that seem like something silly to get angry about? Keep in mind: we’re dealing with a silly person. He just happens to be a silly person with his finger on the trigger of what could potentially be the next major conflict of our time. With the U.S. moving missile defense systems into the region, the idea of backing North Korea into a corner is looking more like reality.
But even in a world where Kim Jong Un has zero intention of launching any kind of attack to push us over the edge, the situation is still very, very dangerous. Everyone is on high alert, which means one move in the wrong direction could tip everything into chaos. As reported in The Washington Times:
With North Korean rhetoric at such a high level, and given Pyongyang’s history of military provocations against its southern neighbor, Gen. James Thurman said his greatest fear is “a miscalculation. An impulsive decision that causes a kinetic provocation.”
Gen. Thurman, who leads the 28,500 American military troops based in South Korea and also serves as the commander of United Nations Command, granted an exclusive interview to ABC News on Tuesday.
He said he could not discount North Korean rhetoric as mere fist-shaking. Asked if he thought threats to attack the United States were empty, Gen. Thurman said: “No, I don’t think that they are. We’ve got to take every threat seriously.”
His response also indicated the dilemma that a small-scale North Korean military provocation, such as a cross- border exchange of fire, might pose for U.S. and South Korean commanders.
“We will defend ourselves,” he said. “We don’t want to respond to some type of deceptive move into a rapid escalation into a conflict. … My job is to prevent war.” […]
But with Pyongyang’s forces on a hair trigger, and changed rules of engagement and response south of the border, the danger of an accidental war is very real, military analysts agree.
“The potential for an escalatory spiral [into accidental war] is very real,” said Bruce Bennett, a scholar with the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank with historic ties to the U.S. military.
So there’s that. And let’s not pretend that the U.S. and North Korea are the only ones who could take a step in the wrong direction. If South Korea or Japan react to a perceived threat, such moves could trigger conflict just as easily. There’s a lot at stake.
And then there’s China. On one hand, they have ZERO desire to have a conflict that includes the U.S. in their backyard. On the other hand, there are treaties to consider. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) explains this very grey area:
Experts say China has also been ambivalent on the question of its commitment to intervene for the defense of North Korea in case of military conflict. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance says China is obliged to defend North Korea against unprovoked aggression. But Jaewoo Choo, assistant professor of Chinese foreign policy at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, writes in Asian Survey that “China conceives itself to have the right to make an authoritative interpretation of the “principle for intervention” in the treaty. As a result of changes in regional security in a post-Cold War world, he writes, “China now places more value on national interest, over alliances blinded by ideology.” But, he argues, Chinese ambiguity deters others from taking military action against Pyongyang.
There is good reason for doubt. It’s been a long history of mixed signals on the relationship status of China and North Korea, but one thing is very, very clear: it’s complicated. CFR continued:
Despite their long alliance, experts say Beijing does not control Pyongyang. “In general, Americans tend to overestimate the influence China has over North Korea,” says Daniel Pinkston, a Northeast Asia expert at the International Crisis Group. In March 2010, China refused to take a stance against North Korea, despite conclusive evidence that showed Pyongyang sank a South Korean naval vessel. But in meetings with then leader Kim Jong-Il following the incident, then Chinese President Hu Jintao asked the North Korean leader to refrain from future provocations, says John S. Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Hu also reportedly insisted on long overdue market reforms, notes Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea expert at Leeds University.
At the same time, China has too much at stake in North Korea to halt or withdraw its support entirely. “The idea that the Chinese would turn their backs on the North Koreans is clearly wrong,” says CFR Senior Fellow Adam Segal. Beijing only agreed to UN Resolution 1718 after revisions removed requirements for tough economic sanctions beyond those targeting luxury goods, and China’s trade with North Korea has steadily increased in recent years. Bilateral trade between China and North Korea reached nearly $6 billion in 2011, according to official Chinese data. Park writes that much of China’s economic interactions with North Korea are not actually prohibited by the current UN sanctions regime, as Beijing characterizes them as economic development and humanitarian activities. China’s enforcement of the UN sanctions is also unclear, says a January 2010 report (PDF) from the U.S. Congressional Research Service, which notes that Chinese exports of banned luxury goods averaged around $11 million per month in 2009.
Let’s also not pretend that this is just about dollar signs. It’s also a major security concern for China. In a world where the current regime in North Korea falls, China has a major refugee problem on its hands. Not helping concerns about the role China would play in a conflict between North Korea and the U.S. are the PLA (Chinese army) movements we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. The Washington Free Beacon reports:
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troop and tank movements were reported in Daqing, located in northeastern Heilongjiang Province, and in the border city of Shenyang, in Liaoning Province.
Officials said one key military unit involved in the mobilization is the 190th Mechanized Infantry Brigade based in Benxi, Liaoning Province. The brigade is believed to be the PLA’s frontline combat unit that would respond to any regional conflict or refugee flows. Troops and tank movements also were reported in Dandong, in Liaoning Province.
Fighter jets were reported flying in larger numbers in Fucheng, Hebei Province, and in Zhangwu, in Liaoning Province, and Changchun, in Jilin Province.
Now, to be fair, it is entirely plausible that these movements will have more to do with stabilization in the event of North Korean collapse than supporting them militarily. And China HAS been critical of North Korea as of late. But again, we don’t have a lot of clarity, and it’s more about that whole hair-trigger concern. The worry is less that we’ll all march towards each other in a straight line, and more than someone’s going to accidentally knock over the wrong domino.
When we talk about North Korea, it’s easier (and far less frightening) to assume they’re just throwing another tantrum. But when we take a step back, and realize just how volatile the situation is… well, now you know where my nightmares came from last night.