The situation on the Korean peninsula continues to deteriorate. During the sixth nuclear test in North Korea, an atomic bomb was used that was 10 times more powerful than one dropped on Nagasaki. South Korea’s parliamentary defense committee chief Kim Young-woo said that “the North’s latest test is estimated to have a yield of up to 100 kilotons, though it is a provisional report.” The latest test was conducted as a show of defiance almost immediately after the latest call to stop them came from the UN Security Council.
And that is not all. As reported by the official North Korean news agency KCNA, leader of the DPRK Kim Jong-un had personally examined the newly-developed hydrogen bomb. The North Korean agency claims that the DPRK has managed to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons, which is a “landmark step” in the development of such weapons in the country. The same report says that the new weapon can be activated even at a high altitude. This is a hint at the nation’s recent test of long-range ballistic missiles.
The current situation is very similar to the chess zugzwang. Whichever course the parties opt for, the situation will only deteriorate.
After China declared an embargo on trade with the DPRK covering most of its exports, the North Korean leader sharply raised the stakes. The recent missile and nuclear tests, undertaken clearly against the desires of both China and Russia, and the demonstrative overflight of Japan by a North Korean missile were intended to demonstrate that the North Korean regime was not afraid of anything and was ready to use extreme means. Neither any kind of embargo nor even a complete cessation of foreign trade will stop him. Moreover, a period of unpredictability will begin if measures taken against the DPRK will be interpreted in the north of the peninsula as a threat to the existence of the regime or as the beginning of a direct military invasion.
In response, South Korea’s air force carried out exercises simulating high-precision bombing missions near the line of demarcation along the 38th parallel. Bombs of great destructive power which are designed to destroy hardened targets were dropped at the testing ground. The fact is that back during the Korean War of 1950-53, the North Koreans used deep caves as a defense against American bombing. Weapons then available could not hit them. Many of the most important military, nuclear, and other facilities are located precisely in the mountains, which – according to the North Korean military – ensures their invulnerability.
Now the situation has changed. Both the US and South Korean militaries are armed with very powerful bombs and the said exercises involving bombings were to show the arrogant Pyongyang leader that not everything was as rosy as he imagined.
Another message fits completely into this game of nerves. According to the influential South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, the South Korean government in cooperation with the Pentagon has drafted a plan called OPLAN 5015 and providing for “a mobilization of airborne troops and marines to quickly overthrow the North Korean regime.” The objective is to make the war as short as possible. According to the AFP news agency, the plan provides for the creation of a “decapitation team.” It is to include South Korean special forces and the SEAL Team Six of the US Navy. It must quickly penetrate Pyongyang and destroy the leader of the DPRK, although the latter objective is not explicitly mentioned in the plan itself. Nevertheless, the name of the group speaks for itself. To provide a powerful cover for the team, the South Korean military identified about 1,000 targets around Pyongyang which would be hit on the day of the attack.
It is possible that such plans exist, but this does not necessarily mean they will be implemented. So far, it looks like mutual warnings and efforts to draw the so-called a mince ligne rouge – a thin red line that cannot be ever crossed. Otherwise, the parties risk getting into a military conflict with unpredictable consequences.
What options does the world community have regarding the developing crisis over North Korea?
Firstly, non-military options of influencing Kim to bring him to his senses are almost exhausted. The only remaining one is to declare a complete naval blockade, which will not have game-changing consequences. China is unlikely to completely stop trading with the DPRK, although it will reduce it to a fraction of its current amount. Similarly, Russia will do the same. The latter will try to respond to the US sanctions by getting back at the US in East Asia.
Secondly, Kim will not start an open military conflict, but he will continue and even strengthen his nuclear-missile blackmail. He needs security guarantees for his regime. He does not believe in any treaties and signed commitments from the US and Japan as well as China and Russia. As evidence, the North Korean press points to the fate of the Budapest Memorandum, the annexation of Crimea, and the Russian aggression in the Donbas. No attempts to show that these events cannot be compared to his situation will convince the dictator. Here, the UK and the US are paying dearly for their bland policy of appeasing the aggressor and procrastinating with full support for Ukraine.
Thirdly, it follows from the aforesaid that Kim will not agree to any nuclear and missile disarmament. These weapons are not just a guarantee of his personal security, but also of the inviolability of his regime in the northern part of the Korean peninsula for the foreseeable future.
All parties to the conflict have found themselves in a very unpleasant situation.
For US President Donald Trump, it is fraught with new domestic political problems. He cannot show his weakness, let alone retreat, as this will increase the pressure on him on the part of the leadership of the Republican Party. The White House can only strengthen the security measures covering South Korea and Japan.
For the Chinese leadership, Kim’s willfulness is also fraught with dangers, as it casts a shadow on its ability to cope with this neighbor, who depends on trade with China so strongly. If the world’s second most powerful country cannot make the North Korean leader behave, who will believe in the formidable power of the Celestial Empire in disputes over some islands in the South China Sea? The confrontation with India should be added to the list. For China to show their ability to calm Kim is very important now and something will be done in this respect. The problem is that it cannot go very far, because it does not want to bring down the Pyongyang regime.
Russia is also in an ambivalent situation. It would like to support Kim to spite America, but on the other hand it cannot do so if it is against China’s desires. As they say, all cats love fish but fear to wet their paws. Most likely, the Kremlin will try to play the role of an intermediary if China agrees to this. By all accounts, this is unlikely.
Although the Korean Peninsula is far from Ukraine, the development of events there will hurt us, especially if a negative military scenario unfolds. All this diverts attention and resources, first of all, in the US, from the support of this country. And Russia will try to take advantage of this. Kim’s missile-nuclear blackmail can ricochet and strike us.