Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

North Korea: War games gone wrong

Tim Beal examines the US ‘playbook’ miscalculations that underlie the current US-North Korea crisis

June 18, 2013
9 min read

Every year for decades the US has been running huge joint military exercises with South Korea. These have various functions – keeping the military in trim, tension-building, forcing North Korea to go onto alert to drain its meagre resources, and so on. Every year, North Korea (and China in the background) protests.

This year things were different. The US ostentatiously introduced various weapons systems – including B-52s and B-2s – in an unprecedented display of military might, conveying messages not merely for North Korea but for South Korea and China. North Korea reacted with unusual vehemence, reflecting both the youth of its leader, Kim Jong Un, and increased confidence in its nuclear deterrent, or at least the threat of it. Although the US portrays its military exercises as defensive, a protection against the North Korean threat, the evidence points in the other direction.

Despite having a large army – it is in effect a people under arms – North Korea is much weaker than its southern neighbour. It is not just that South Korea has twice the population; its military has nearly all the up-to-date weaponry that the US can provide. Between 2000 and 2008, according to data from the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, it was the world’s third largest arms importer, behind China and India, while North Korea was 90th. The South imported a hundred times as much as the North.

Any war between the two Koreas would automatically involve the US because it has ‘wartime control’ of South Korea’s military. The outcome would be inevitable. A recent article in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine spelt it out:

‘Ironically, the risk of North Korean nuclear war stems not from weakness on the part of the United States and South Korea but from their strength. If war erupted, the North Korean army, short on training and armed with decrepit equipment, would prove no match for the US-South Korean combined forces command. Make no mistake, Seoul would suffer some damage, but a conventional war would be a rout, and CFC forces would quickly cross the border and head north . . .

‘At that point, North Korea’s inner circle would face a grave decision: how to avoid the terrible fates of such defeated leaders as Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi . . . [Other than fleeing to China] Pyongyang’s only other option would be to try to force a ceasefire by playing its only trump card: nuclear escalation.’

The authors got it a bit wrong. North Korea has made it clear that it will not wait until the Americans are at the gates of Pyongyang before resorting to nuclear weapons. A foreign ministry statement at the beginning of March declared that ‘if the Americans light the fuse of a nuclear war, the revolutionary forces will exercise the right to execute a pre-emptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the invaders’.

What is the US up to?

This is not, as was widely reported, a threat to attack first, but rather to use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack. So what is going on? Given that North Korea is so much weaker than its opponents and hence the chances of it deliberately starting a war are miniscule, it is clear that the US military exercises were designed to raise tension, rather than preserve peace. But why have the Americans done this?

Part of the US strategy was revealed in a Wall Street Journal article on 3 April, which described what officials called a ‘playbook’ to escalate tension in a planned manner. What was the purpose of the playbook? Obviously the message is partly aimed at North Korea (and China) but the main intended recipient is Park Geun-hye, the new South Korean president. She promised during her election campaign to reverse the policy of her predecessor and engage with North Korea, a latterday ‘Sunshine Policy’ that causes alarm in the US security establishment and the South Korean right. Donald Gregg, Bush senior’s ambassador to South Korea, has suggested that the US-initiated UN resolution condemning North Korea’s satellite launch was intended to derail Park’s approach.

The US has taken various steps to retain control of the situation. A new agreement with the South Korea military will bring in the US at an earlier stage of an ‘incident’, thus shifting power from the South Korean president to the US military.

Now the Wall Street Journal suggests the US is putting the playbook on hold and ‘dialling back’ its threats. Why? There appear to have been concerns expressed by Seoul that things were getting too dangerous. It seems that the vigour and determination of Kim Jong Un’s response was unexpected, although that in itself is not the major factor since any decision to go to war would lie with Washington, not Pyongyang. As the crisis was escalated the North Koreans responded, not with military action but gestures, such as the abandonment of the 1953 armistice agreement (which had been violated many times already, not least by the US military exercises themselves) and with belligerent, defiant rhetoric. All this got the media worked up into an apocalyptic frenzy.

The framers of the playbook strategy knew what they were doing. The Wall Street Journal article reassures us that ‘US intelligence agencies assessed the risks associated with the playbook and concluded there was a low probability of a North Korean military response because the regime’s top priority has been self-preservation.’

Or to put it another way, they knew that they could be as provocative as they liked, short of an actual incursion into North Korea, because the government would not retaliate. Far from being a crazily threatening country, as portrayed by the media (with a little prompting from US officials), North Korea is small and weak, but is ready to defend itself and calibrates quite carefully its response to provocation. The playbook was based on an understanding of this. The US aim was not to precipitate war, but to prevent peace breaking out.

A step too far

In one respect, though, things didn’t go entirely according to plan. Apparently the Pentagon got carried away and sent ships towards North Korea in a move that was not in the playbook.

The US navy didn’t like it.

If a war was to erupt in Korea, the most likely flashpoint would be in the West Sea around the northern limit line (NLL). This was unilaterally drawn up by the US after the armistice in 1953, ironically to stop South Korea’s Syngman Rhee from re-igniting the conflict. The North does not recognise the NNL and there are often clashes. The two countries’ presidents, Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong Il agreed at their summit in 2007 to turn it into a ‘zone of peace’ but Roh was soon to vacate office and his hardline successor Lee Myung-bak reneged on the plan.

Seoul and Washington are reported to have a number of contingency plans for different scenarios. One that would bring the US in at the early stages of a clash is North Korean naval boats crossing the NLL. A battle between the North and South Korean navies could be contained, as has happened in the past. A firefight involving the US navy is another matter. This might be interpreted by Pyongyang as the opening salvoes of an invasion and they might counterattack, as they have threatened, with all means at their disposal, including nuclear weapons. The threat is meant as a deterrent, but deterrents are only effective if both sides believe in them.

The US administration moved to cool things down. A planned ICBM missile test (of which there have been more than a thousand over the years) was postponed on the grounds that it could be misinterpreted and exacerbate the crisis. North Korean, for its part, celebrated the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth on 15 April not with a missile test or a military parade, as forecast by the western media, but rather by the usual mass dancing in the main square. The media reported, with a sense of bemusement, that all was calm in Pyongyang.

The possibility that North Korea has some sort of nuclear weapons capability, however rudimentary, clearly does provide a deterrent from a US-backed attack either directly, as in Iraq, or through proxies, as in Libya. Ultimately this might force Washington into meaningful negotiations, despite its long-stated precondition of any long-term agreement that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

In the past, before it had nuclear weapons, that was negotiable. But no longer. If George Bush had not torn up Bill Clinton’s 1994 agreed framework then North Korea might not have developed its nuclear deterrent. Now that it has it, it will not easily let it go.

What will happen now? It was predictable that tensions would subside and sometime mid-year there would be talks between Pyongyang and Seoul. The playbook would have failed but US opposition to tension reduction would continue. Park Geun-hye came away from her meeting with Obama in May being criticised for not being assertive enough in pressing the South Korean case for engagement. The initiative was taken out of her hands by two North Korean moves. Kim Jong Un sent a top level envoy to deliver a personal letter to Xi Jinping and, in an attempt to repair bridges, agreed to re-join the Six Party Talks. The North then made an overture to the South that could not be rejected and talks about talks swung into action immediately.

How far they will go and what will be achieved is as yet unknown and no doubt there will be wranglings as they spar over details. The State Department gave a frosty reaction to the North-South negotiations. But the big game is that between Washington and Pyongyang and that is very complex, complicated by the strange world of American domestic politics, and the strategic need to keep tension alive on the Korean peninsula as a key part of the strategy of containing China. At the Sunnylands summit in June Obama apparently rebuffed Xi’s plea for the US to come back to the Six Party Talks.

No war, but then no peace either, in the immediate future.

Tim Beal’s most recent book, Crisis in Korea: America, China, and the Risk of War, was published by Pluto Press in 2011. He also maintains the website Asian Geopolitics

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


9