North Korea’s current bellicosity should be no cause for alarm. Everything that we’ve seen and heard from Pyongyang has been carefully calibrated to have a rhetorical impact. The country is politically and economically isolated. In fact, one of the telling features of the current crisis is that the North Korean military has not been mobilised and deployed en masse. Yes, the North Korean military has prepared a couple of medium-range missiles for possible testing, but this is a far cry from mobilising the entire North Korean missile fleet for a full-scale attack against South Korea, let alone the United States which, with the exception of the US Pacific territory of Guam, is well outside North Korean missile range. Empirical evidence shows that since the 1950-53 Korean War, the North Korean military, specifically its intelligence services and Special Forces, have been actively engaging South Korea in many tactical provocations. However, the country’s ability to wage a major war must be questioned. Rigid Soviet-era command and control, antiquated communications and poor infrastructure allows one to speculate that only a few pockets of the North Korean military may be able to ‘put up a fight’ on the modern battlefield. For example, apart from a handful of ‘elite’ fighter units in the North Korean Air Force possessing ‘state-of-the-art’ 1980s-vintage MiG-29s, some 1980s-vintage Soviet fast attack craft for the North Korean Navy and its flotilla of domestically produced miniature submarines, the only weapons in the North Korean arsenal that South Korea and the West really need to worry about are the artillery batteries of the North Korean Army. These batteries could, with little advanced warning, fire a withering opening salvo against the South Korean capital Seoul, levelling large parts of the exposed city and other vulnerable South Korean towns close to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The ensuing refugee crisis such an attack would create is hard to foretell. Needless to say that the North Korean High Command would be reasonably sure that the panic of tens of thousands of South Korean refugees fleeing further South into the Republic of Korea, might give the North Korean Army sufficient time to mount a limited ‘incursion-in-strength’ over the DMZ; their speculative outcome being that a negotiated settlement could be reached with Seoul and Washington before the joint forces of South Korea and the US mount their inevitable counter-attack which may very well include regime change in Pyongyang.
We need to also consider that North Korea’s actions may not be entirely their own. China is key to events in North Korea. In an ironic twist of fate, in spite of being the 21st Century ‘workshop of the world’, China only has one international ally – North Korea. Beijing might chaff at their dealings with Pyongyang periodically, but one has to question just how genuine their diplomatic protestations are. China is increasingly being placed under strategic pressure by the United States. The US Asia Pivot is essentially designed to ensure that Washington’s Asian allies can depend on an American military hedge against China’s inexorable expansion outward from the Chinese mainland. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was crated to keep the Chinese mercantilists off balance, while allowing those from Japan and Southeast Asia to feel safe from Chinese commercial predations. America’s technological focus on drones, anti-ballistic missile interceptors and importantly – cyber warfare – are clear signals to aspiring great powers like China, that the US will play to its military strengths to remind would-be regional hegemons that they are no match against US strategic resolve to remain ‘first among equals’. Dismissing any strategic challenge, real or perceived, would be tantamount to conceding to the perception of eroding American strength globally. Therefore it is not hard to see the current imbroglio over North Korea through the prism of the greater game being played between China and the United States over who will take the prize of the Western Pacific. Korean unification as a consequence of war would bring Western power to the gates of northern China, something not in China’s strategic interest.
By Dr. John Bruni, Director SAGE International