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Last Updated: 04/12/2013
North Korea and the Pacific Pivot
Ross Ryan

The rapid escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula over the past few weeks should be seen within the context of increased military activity throughout the Asian-Pacific region and, in particular, the US' strategic effort to balance Chinese expansion.

Talking with friends in a small bar in Seoul’s Hongdae neighbourhood, or with the parents of young children in the busy playground of a suburban apartment complex, the prospect of a full-scale war with North Korea is sickening – and a little bit ridiculous.

From the blogs of foreigners living in or visiting North Korea, which are admittedly suspicious in their own way, a similar story is told: far from crying “war”, people are trying to get along with their lives – roller skating, for example, or talking about the 3g internet service they now have for their mobile phones. There is no indication that either population wants a war, which makes a lot of sense to me, since theirs are the homes and families that would be affected first.

The word on the street – and among academics like David Kang, who have been clarifying this misconception for years now – is that the governments don’t want to start a war either; the political and economic consequences are simply unacceptable to all sides. Apparently, it’s all just rhetoric and military posturing. We've seen it before.

There are some differences this time around, however, that disturb an easy shrugging off of the whole situation as “no big deal”. For one thing, as John Park points out, this is a period of leadership transition for many of the countries involved – China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and in some sense the US – and they’re all testing each other’s resolve, reaffirming alliances, and watching for opportunities to manoeuvre from the various reactions.[1]

And there is also a larger contextual difference, in that this particular round of escalation is taking place within an atmosphere of increased military activity throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans – motivated largely by the US military’s strategic realignment towards the Pacific, the so-called “Pivot to Asia”, first announced in 2011. This important policy change has already generated a healthy debate among academics as well as policy advisors in the US, but seems to have been overlooked in the recent reports of DPRK belligerence.

What I purpose to do in this brief commentary is to review the dangerous theatrics on the Korean peninsula over the last couple of weeks from the point of view of the shifting power dynamics of the Pacific more generally – but there are many more issues beneath this, so please send your analyses and commentaries to the PCM so we can all get a clearer picture of what escalating tension in the Pacific means for peace and security more generally.

Saving Face

Toy rockets for sale in a South Korean bookstore.

Certainly, the DPRK’s escalating actions are worrying – scrapping the armistice, threatening to launch nuclear missiles at South Korea and the US mainland, announcing their intention to reopen the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, and advising foreigners to leave South Korea are all sobering reminders that the Korean War is very much unresolved, and that the threat of some kind of armed engagement is still very real.

But they also sound like bluffs. I say “sound” because that’s what they’ve been – announcements and threats, without any significant troop movements or any live fire, just the positioning of a rocket, which the US defence establishment has told reporters would be easily intercepted if launched.

In fact, most of these threats are not really as scary as they sound. Switching back on the Yongbyon nuclear research facility, for example, is not so easy, and certainly not a cause for immediate alarm. Its cooling tower was publicly demolished in 2008, and even if its reactivation became a top national priority, estimates are that it would take months to restart the reactor and over a year to produce any weapons grade material.

i think it is also important to note that the images of soviet-style military marches being used on the news to illustrate this story are quite old – the last such display being part of a mass dance/parade for Kim Jong-Il’s funeral about a year ago. The North Koreans are not, as certain media sources have suggested by using this imagery, already marching to war.

While I certainly don’t think that any threat of war should be taken lightly, and nuclear weapons/reactors are dangerous in any country (Fukushima comes to mind), so far DPRK’s actions have not been as threatening as they have been a predictable signal that the government is following a policy of deterrence – the same policy they have been following for the last 60 years. In essence, they need to appear strong enough, and determined enough, to launch a credible counter-offensive in order to deter any plans of invasion – such as, for example, the invasion strongly suggested by the recently concluded US war games with South Korea on the North Korean border, Foal Eagle 2013.

Front page of the Korean herald, Friday March 29, 2013.Clearly, the most enthusiastic muscle flexing has been taking place on the US side – such as the high profile firing drills of B2 stealth bombers. The deployment of these aeroplanes is significant in that it recalls the UN-approved US campaign during the Korean War to repeatedly bomb every population centre in the north, including Pyongyang, killing at least hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of civilians. Also notable is that the B2s took off from newly refurbished airstrips on Tinian Island, where the B29s Enola Gay and Bocks Car also took off in August 1945 to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The US threats of bombing, therefore, come with a sense of immediacy and historical weight that could be easily misinterpreted as more than mere posturing. In light of this possibility, Amy Goodman has reported that Washington is beginning to worry they might accidentally trigger a war by presenting too immediate of an existential threat to the DPRK, and have been quietly easing off accordingly – at least for now. Tim Shorrock's analysis also leads to this conclusion, and gently suggests adopting a policy of negotiation rather than provocation, which is exactly what John Kerry's crisis management strategy has been. (It seems the US is also saving face.)

So if nobody really wanted a war, the multi-billion dollar question is: what was behind this alarming pattern of escalation? To answer this, let’s consider the larger US strategy in the Pacific.

The Pivot

The pivot to Asia is an ambitious and expensive China containment policy detailed in the 2012 document Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.[2] Building on an already formidable military presence in the region, the pivot has so far involved the refurbishment of bases from WWII, increasing the number of marines stationed in Australia, a greater frequency and intensity of military exercises with allies, and supporting the Philippines and Viet Nam in their island disputes with China.

North Korea's predictable refusal to show weakness in response to the pressure called for in the DoD document, if nothing else, has served as a useful justifier of the pivot’s even more necessary implementation. indeed, North Korean threats have already been used to justify the early deployment of missile defence systems in Guam and Alaska (made by Lockheed Martin), and to convince the Japanese to continue suppressing the long-standing effort to reduce US military presence in the country, as well as to deploy anti-missile systems themselves.

Heightened regional tensions also create a good business environment for the US weapons industry – the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, even Australia are all promising markets. Somewhat ironically, it is also good for the Chinese government, which can justify its own military industrial complex, its expansionist policies in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, as well as its on-going tension with Taiwan, and its support for North Korea, all as a counter to US containment. China also benefits domestically by pandering to nationalist sentiment.

(Of course, the US and Chinese economies are already greatly integrated, and a direct confrontation is in neither country’s real interest, making this as much of a chess game as the Cold War… although perhaps now we should use the metaphor of xiangqi instead.)

Another significant point is that the North Korean threat is helping the US government to justify this whole Pivot to Asia policy to a domestic population that favours reductions in military spending and is primarily concerned with rebuilding the American economy. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the US population would choose to fund the Pivot to Asia policy if they were offered an informed choice.

The depressing part of all this, for me, is that people’s lives are treated so lightly in these Cold War style calculations and military displays, and I wonder how different the policies of all the governments currently jostling for position in the Pacific would be if they began from the recognition that all people deserve to be treated with respect. With that in mind, let me end where I began: nobody wants this war.

[1] Dr Park also makes some very good points about the recent UN sanctions against DPRK, the roles of different interest groups within China, and the goals of North Korea’s nuclear program.

[2] From page 2 (emphasis is in the original):

Accordingly, while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region. Our relationships with Asian allies and key partners are critical to the future stability and growth of the region. We will emphasize our existing alliances, which provide a vital foundation for Asia-Pacific security. We will also expand our networks of cooperation with emerging partners throughout the Asia-Pacific to ensure collective capability and capacity for securing common interests. The United States is also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region. Furthermore, we will maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula by effectively working with allies and other regional states to deter and defend against provocation from North Korea, which is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

The maintenance of peace, stability, the free flow of commerce, and of U.S. influence in this dynamic region will depend in part on an underlying balance of military capability and presence. Over the long term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the U.S. economy and our security in a variety of ways. Our two countries have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a cooperative bilateral relationship. However, the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.

Ross Ryan edits the Peace and Conflict Monitor.