Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Richard Murphy says that the appropriate political will and understanding of tax can put an end to offshore avoidance and evasion
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes