Korean War 2.0: Deescalate Now

Recent warnings of instability on the Korean peninsula by Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov come at a most appropriate time – and indeed, there is a frightening possibility that the situation could spin out of control. Since the North was heavily penalized by UN sanctions following its recent satellite launch and nuclear test, Pyongyang has embarked on a near-daily onslaught of belligerent threats, some of which include its invalidation of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War, threats to nuke the United States, and threats to occupy South Korea and subsequently take all Americans in the country hostage. Military analysts claim that North Korea is at least several years from building a nuclear warhead or a missile capable of reaching the US mainland – but there is no doubt that if the Kim regime oversteps their approach, it could certainly have severe repercussions for civilians in South Korea and Japan, both in range of North Korea’s rockets.

Despite regular threats of destruction and Pyongyang’s recent proclamation that the two Korean states are officially in a state of war, day-to-day life has retained its normality according to sources on the ground. Needless to say, there is no doubt that civilians on both sides are feeling tense in the current scenario, especially those on disputed South Korean islands in the West sea, just a stones throw away from the North Korean maritime border. The four thousands residents of the South’s Baengnyeong Island, which Kim Jong-un personally threatened to “wipe out” in early March, have been severely hindered from carrying out their day-to-day activities such as fishing due to the joint US-ROK military exercises in the area. Despite inter-Korean relations reaching their lowest point in recent times with the entire South on high alert, most South Koreans are adept at brushing off the North’s rhetoric, but they’re still proceeding with caution.

The question remains, what exactly is Kim Jong-un trying to achieve through this campaign of bellicosity? North Korean state media claims that the US “should clearly know that in the era of Marshal Kim Jong Un, the greatest-ever commander, all things are different from what they used to be in the past.” The current approach being taken by Pyongyang is multifaceted, but its central component is building up Kim’s image domestically and rallying people around the flag – this has been reinforced by daily public appearances and friendly photo-ops of Kim mingling with local people, as well as an internal propaganda campaign likening him to his grandfather Kim il-Sung, the founder and “Eternal President” of North Korea. The central message Pyongyang wants to send both internationally and domestically is that Kim Jong-un’s era is distinctly different from before – many South Korean observers have also noted this change in approach, designed to make the regime’s moves more difficult to predict.

Most analysts are regarding the North’s rhetoric as their familiar brand of psychological warfare whereby it cranks up the tensions and threatens Seoul and Washington with destruction, and is then rewarded with food aid and concessions when it tones things down, which it has previously done in the months of April and May – harvest time. Pyongyang likely views the present scenario as an opportune time to test the water, keeping the new administrations of their neighbors in South Korea, China and Japan on their toes. Despite the muscle flexing and the foolish threats emanating out of Pyongyang, Washington’s recent deployment of two nuclear-capable US B-2 stealth bombers illustrates everything that is wrong with US policy toward the North – this kind of move only serves to raise antagonisms and it in fact legitimizes Pyongyang’s rhetoric of the US coaxing nuclear war on the peninsula.

In addition to joint US-ROK’s endless barrage of war games on North Korea’s doorstep, the brandishing of B-2 bombers, which carry bombs that can blast through 70 meters of reinforced concrete, is an unnecessary stunt that is both bold and needlessly provocative. In fact, the B-2 flyover helps Kim Jong-un in consolidating his political power at home by rallying domestic support behind the US threat and distracting North Koreans from economic problems. These moves beg the question, is the United States prepared to launch a full-scale war against North Korea? Despite the high public disapproval of overt warfare campaigns launched by the Bush administration, the unholy status North Korea enjoys in American mainstream media – coupled with its threats to nuke the United States and the simple fact that is it a communist state – is likely enough to coax the average American into supporting a war of aggression against Pyongyang.

Despite the fact that the war would be relatively easy to sell to the public, the United States is financially strained and in no position to engage North Korea and endure massive causalities within its military, not to mention the risk of pulling China into the fold. Therefore, Washington would likely find nuclear weapons to be the most cost-effective way to quell the North Korean threat, an equally unacceptable scenario. At this point, North Korea is a godsend for the US military industrial complex and the defense industry, and South Korea is set to keep its status as the world’s single biggest importer of US weaponry. As the Obama administration pursues its pivot the Asia-Pacific region, the colorful belligerence of North Korea is exactly what it needs not only to maintain its unpopular military presence in South Korea and Japan, but also to further bolster its military muscle on China’s doorstep.

Despite North Korea’s threats being empty, one should not dismiss the possibility that they will respond to provocations with force, much like how they shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 as a response to South Korean military exercises that fired live rounds into their territorial waters. This kind of small-scale fire exchange has the possibility to ignite the situation into a larger and more dangerous standoff, so it is of maximum importance that cool heads prevail and needlessly provocative displays of military muscle are scaled back. Koreans have historically seen themselves as a shrimp amongst whales – where they saw their peninsula abused by the US and the Soviet Union yesterday, they fear the same scenario repeating itself between the US and China today. If the Obama administration is not careful, it will provoke Pyongyang into doing something rash and by then, it will already be too late to rectify the situation.

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Nile Bowie, Boiling Frogs Post contributing author and analyst, is a political analyst and photographer currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Bowie grew up in New York City and is the son of two art photographers who established themselves by photographing America’s poor and destitute. Bowie left the United States in his teens to pursue photojournalism and has resettled in South East Asia. As a political analyst, he has explored issues of American foreign policy and its influence on militarism in the Islamic world, China’s emerging role as global power, and inter-Korean stability and security, contributing to outlets such as Russia Today, the New Straits Times, the Asia Times, the Tehran Times, and the Center for Research on Globalization. Visit Nile Bowie’s Website Here


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