First published 23 April 2022
In 2017, before the thaw in relation started, the author mentioned several times that both countries in the Korean peninsula were close to a dangerous threshold. Unfortunately, in spring 2022, this crisis again became likely to happen. The reason for that is not only the launch of Hwasong 17, but also a number of other events.
Expanded military and political alliance between the US and the Republic of Korea
On March 30, South Korea successfully made a trial launch of a solid-fuel space rocket, and on March 31, Won In-choul, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his US colleague Mark Milley signed the so-called Strategic Planning Directive (SPD) aimed at updating joint wartime contingency plans due to the fact that current plans do not correspond to the level of North Korea’s progress in developing new weapons such as ICBMs, SLBMs and hypersonic missiles. Therefore, in wartime, the United States and South Korea should accept the possibility of North Korea’s use of both nuclear and conventional weapons.
As reported on the results of the South Korean delegation’s visit to the United States, the delegation proposed to the US to strengthen the US-ROK military alliance, expand it to a strategic level and enhance the policy of “extended deterrence”, in particular:
- resume the joint military exercises in their previous scope; some time earlier the scope of these exercises had been reduced as South Korea had been seeking to improve relations with the DPRK (and later because of COVID);
- deploy strategic bombers on a regular or even permanent basis and have nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers enter the ports more frequently;
- acquire additional THAAD batteries in view of their deployment, at least in the Seoul area.
North Korea makes new tough statements
On April 1, 2022, during the ceremony of reorganization of the strategic missile command of the ground forces, the Minister of Defense of South Korea, Suh Wook actually repeated the statement previously made by Yoon Suk-yeol about the preventive strike, emphasizing the fact that South Korean army has suitable munitions for that. According to Suh Wook, the South Korean army has a sufficient range of high-tech weapons capable of making a preventive strike to North Korea’s launching pads and supporting infrastructure. Additionally, Suh Wook noted that South Korea would continue to develop its own missiles, including ICBMs.
From a military and technical point of view, the logic of these rhetorical moves is clear. As the arsenal of the North Korean army includes multiple rocket launching systems (MLRS), “Kimskanders” for a pull-up maneuver, hypersonic gliders and rail mobile missile systems (RMMS), the chances that the South Korean air defense forces will be able to intercept already launched missiles, are close to zero, therefore, in a critical situation, it is easier to destroy a missile before it leaves the launching pad.
But this kind of reasoning sounds like a “red rag” for North Korea, and on April 2, the “First Sister” and the deputy head of the department of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Kim Yo-jong, published a press statement in which Suh Wook was called a scumbag and a mad fanatic of confrontation, whose “insane and excessive nonsense about a “preventive strike” further aggravated the military tensions of inter-Korean relations and situation in the Korean peninsula”, which will inevitable result in changes in the relationship with South Korea.
The secretary of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Park Chon Chon, who is in charge of military construction and army development in North Korea, also noted that “only a madman or a congenital idiot can talk about a preventive strike against a nuclear state.” In the conditions of formally ongoing war, even “the slightest careless judgment or indecent words and actions angering the opponent can spark the most dangerous confrontation,” in which “our army will ruthlessly concentrate military power to have the main targets of Seoul and the South Korean army destroyed.”
On April 4, 2022, the “First Sister” made a speech containing a clarification: “It has been for a while since Kim Jong-un announced that our main enemy was the war itself.” South Korea is not the main enemy of North Korea and “if the South Korean forces do not take any military steps against our country, then they will not become the target for our strike.” However, if, regardless of the reason for such actions, South Korea makes a preventive strike, South Korea will turn into our target, and “our nuclear combat forces will be executing their task.”
Another outbreak of aggressive rhetoric was caused by the fact that on April 1, during the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the so-called “resolution on human rights” in the DPRK was adopted. The resolution criticized the ongoing violations of human rights in North Korea, and the deterioration of humanitarian conditions in the context of the coronavirus pandemic was also outlined. The resolution called upon Pyongyang requesting it to cooperate with the international community to carry out vaccination of the population against COVID-19 and open borders to allow for the reentry of international organizations and diplomats.
The resolution is adopted annually and it is not too much revised, but this serves as an evidence of the country’s status of an outcast, and therefore, every time it causes a fierce response from North Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.
In this case, Pyongyang leaders responded that the US, the country with “the apogee of deception and hypocrisy, cynicism and double standards,”has no right to criticize North Korea – the country which adheres to the policy where “the people are above all”, and it is embodied in the government actions and public life in general, where the priority is given to the rights and interests of the people, which are an absolute value.”
In addition to the UN resolution, the issue of human rights violations in North Korea was mentioned in the annual report prepared and published on April 12 by the US Department of State. It contained specific notes about the “numerous reports on the government or its agents committing arbitrary and illegal murders,” which apparently should be understood as rumors that border guards were given orders to shoot to kill and “kill anyone who tries to leave the country or escape from political prisoner camps.”
Aggravation of the situation in connection with Kim Il Sung’s 110th anniversary
At the same time, according to ongoing rumors, the Phungeri nuclear test site was under restoration and it looked likely that North Korea could celebrate the 110th anniversary of Kim Il Sung with a “missile fireworks” or the satellite launch. The Japanese newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported for instance on the alleged Pyongyang’s preparation for nuclear trials, this information was based on the analysis of satellite images dated April 5, which had been submitted by Planet Labs, a US-based company. However, the author believes that the time has not yet come for nuclear trials. Even if there is a political willpower, the test site still needs to be prepared. And although, it is anyway a case of a low-yield explosive for a short-range missile, we have to wait for about two more months.
In the Challenges to Security in Space 2022″ Report, presented on April 12 by the Intelligence Office of the US Department of Defense, it was also noted that under the guise of a peaceful space program, Pyongyang is testing technologies designed for ballistic missiles. In addition, it was said that in 2020, Pyongyang arranged a number of cyber operations against the defense industry of the US foreign partners.
The US Congressional Research Service (CRS) has also released an updated report noting Pyongyang’s obvious progress in the field of ICBMs development which have now demonstrated the ability to strike the US mainland. It was emphasized that the results of recent tests demonstrated North Korea’s missiles had proven their maneuverability, power and target accuracy which is indicative of a significant potential to overcome the US missile defense systems (including THAAD) and that it is going to be difficult to intercept them, while the survivability of missile launching systems had also improved due to the use of mobile launchers.
In this context, on April 12, 2022, for the first time in five years, the US Navy nuclear aircraft carrier, Abraham Lincoln entered the waters of the Sea of Japan.
Arrival of this ship can be seen as a demonstration of force, and it coincided with the start of the joint South Korean and US anti-crisis Command and Staff exercises (CMTS), which are taking place from April 12 to 28. Besides the aircraft carrier, F-35Cs, F/A-18E Super Hornet and E-2D Hawk Eye early warning aircrafts are participating in the exercises. The last time the US aircraft carriers Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz entered the Sea of Japan was in November 2017, when they were having joint exercises with the South Korean Navy.
On the same day, April 12, 2022, it became known that the team of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol was considering the possibility to revive the term “main enemy” for North Korea”.
On April 14, Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Adviser said that North Korea is currently “in a cycle of provocations that may last weeks or even months.” When asked if Pyongyang currently had a nuclear-tipped ICBM able to reach the United States, Sullivan replied that North Koreans obviously had the nuclear weapons. Although it has not been proven yet if North Korea succeeded in producing an ICBM warhead.
Meanwhile the day of April 15 had already come in North Korea, and taking into account the fact that most of the ceremonial launches used to be arranged before the actual date, it became clear that the assumptions about the “anniversary fireworks” did not come true, although there were plenty of ordinary fireworks during the celebration.
…. and the launch on April 17
But when the celebration was over, the rockets still came into the picture. On April 17, KCNA announced the “test launch of a new type of tactical guided weapon.” The type of system was not mentioned, but it was noted that it “is of great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes of the DPRK”.
Of course, the 13th rocket launch this year is likely to be used as an excuse for a new round of pressure. According to a number of sources, the United States intends to seek further tightening of international sanctions of the UN Security Council against the DPRK and has already disseminated a corresponding draft document.
The new round of sanctions provides for reducing the established limit for imported supplies of oil to North Korea from the today’s 4 million barrels to 2 million barrels per year, and from 500,000 barrels to 250,000 for petroleum products and fuel, as well as imposing embargo on the export of mineral fuel, oil and lubricants, tobacco and tobacco products. It is also proposed to expand the ban to missile tests to include short-range missile launches, as well as to freeze the financial assets of Lazarus, a hacker group allegedly connected with North Korea.
In addition, starting from May 2022, Washington will rely more on Seoul’s support. The new president’s national security team is expected to consist of people who handled inter-Korean affairs under Lee Myung-bak’s hawkish administration from 2008 to 2013. At that time, the relationship between the two Koreas were experiencing a serious decline precisely because of the actions of the South Korean party.
North Korea, on the one hand, is ready to “strike its fist on the table”. On the other hand, its metaphorical armored train is still on the railway siding, albeit under steam, and that is why the Korean Peninsula is not yet at the dangerous threshold, although the latter is looming again in the horizon.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.