North Korean Nuclear Threats and Regional Tensions

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Context

The US and South Korea began a series of high-powered war games on Sunday 25th of July in a clear deterrent action against North Korea. North Korea has vowed to retaliate with a ‘Sacred War’ including the use of nuclear force. After the sinking of the Cheonan back in March the region has experienced increasing tension between the two Koreas. The military exercises being held between the 25th and the 28th of July are only set to increase the tension. As China PROJECTS POWER in the Asia Pacific realm, the country has to be concerned about being outflanked. China’s allies and economic interests are coming under pressure not only in the Asia Pacific and Middle East but also in South and Central Asia region.

Analysis

Twenty ships, two hundred planes and eight thousand military personnel are engaged in the four days of military exercises held jointly between South Korea and the US. The exercises come just days after new sanctions were announced by Washington against the government in Pyongyang. The sanctions involve increased restrictions on monetary transactions, luxury goods and the sale of arms.

Both measures are attempts by the US and its allies in South Korea to deter the North from attempting any more ‘aggressive’ behavior-in reference to the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan back in March. North Korea-who strongly deny any involvement in the Cheonan incident-claim they are not the aggressors: stating that the military exercises are “unpardonable military provocation” intended to prepare the way for an invasion of the North by the US and the South.

Pyongyang has reminded the world that “we also have nuclear weapons” in an article of the same title published by the Minju Joson government newspaper. The threat of nuclear force is largely seen as a bluff by the North, as similar threats have been made previously without subsequent action. But the question remains as to just how much provocations (‘deterrence’) North Korea will take before it actually makes good on its promise of retaliation.

If the international investigation which concluded the North sank the Cheonan was correct, one would have to imagine that the North is capable of following through on at least some form of reprisal-even if nuclear fire power is not a reality. If we assume that the Cheonan was sunk by the North, as is so vehemently claimed by the US (despite widening uncertainty within South Korean factions) then it can also be assumed that the North is willing and able to make aggressive moves, no matter how ill-conceived.

The military exercises are likely to be far from deterrent in their outcome. The new US spy chief, James Clapper has even cautioned that “North Korea’s military forces still pose a threat that cannot be taken lightly.” Clapper further warned that the North may well be entering into a new phase whereby it will “…once again attempt to advance its internal and external political goals through direct attacks on our allies in the Republic of Korea.”

As previously noted byPOLI TACT, the US is treading on more than just North Korean toes in the region. China is very unhappy about the military exercises taking place in its front yard, feeling that such a strong show of force will only exacerbate tensions in the region. China has exerted enough pull on the US to have the exercises moved from the Yellow Sea, where they were originally planned, to the Sea of Japan. In another move which may put a few more noses out of joint, the US is now referring to the ‘Sea of Japan’ in terms of the ‘East Sea’ to placate South Korea over its continued objection to the body of water being referred to as the Sea of Japan. Name games aside, many in the US are worried that the seeming downscaling of the military exercises has left the US on the back foot and China in a position of increased power. By conceding to the pressure to move the war games, the US has set a precedent which will make any future movement into the Yellow Sea difficult, to say the least.

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Furthermore, in a perhaps unforeseen consequence of the maritime exercises, the US has inadvertently challenged China, who now feels it is imperative to reassert power in the region. The military games have only served to highlight the issue of maritime security in the region and China appears to have come out with the resolve that it needs become stronger to counter the US; hence the pressure over the Yellow Sea. China has also subsequently reframed the trigger of tensions in the region to be the US and South Korea’s reaction to the sinking of the Cheonan, not the sinking of the Cheonan itself.

The US must realize that the continued talk of war (lightly sugar-coated as ‘tough action’) is drawing a line in the sand through East Asia, especially since the signing of a mutual protection pact between North Korea and China back in November of 2009. Any action against Pyongyang is drawing the region closer to all-out war, as China is bound to come to the aid of the North. The US is now in the position of trying to not lose face by toning down its rhetoric and action against North Korea, but placating China at the same time-a tough game to play.

The high profile support that the US is giving to South Korea may prove to be, rather than its intended check on China and deterrent to North Korea, a tangible example of the fragility of the US hegemony; exposing the real fault lines that divide the region’s major powers.

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