In recent months the crisis on the Korean peninsula has deteriorated, spiraling out of control into in to what seems like an ever increasing threat of all-out war. Neither side wishes to back down interlocking into a dangerous geopolitical game of threats and provocation. However, as the crisis deepens ever deeper, behind the war-like rhetoric, is a sign of a strategic objective, on behalf of Washington aimed at escalate tension. While Western media reports on the warlike threats of Pyongyang, they seem to bypass the obvious, that Washington is using the Korean crisis to strengthen regional hegemony and further contain China.
The roots of the current Korean crisis, and an emergence of US policy to contain China, dates back to May 2012 when the US white paper “pivot to the pacific” was released, outlining U.S policy in the region. The paper described the fundamental goal of U.S foreign policy being “to devote more effort to influencing the development of the Asia-Pacific’s norms and rules, particularly as China emerges as an ever-more influencing regional power”. Reading like a list of neoliberal demands from members of the U.S congress, the white paper goes on to call for Chinese reforms, including more access to Chinese markets, improvements in human rights and in the protection of intellectual property, along with increased cooperation on pressuring on states America has classified as rogue regimes such as Iran, North Korea, Syria and Sudan.
The U.S explicitly outlined in their U.S pivot their strategy to North Korea, which outlining the need to gain Chinese cooperation, without giving the impression of Chinese containment, while the appointment of Kim Jong-un could “considerably shift priorities in the region” give North Korea concern over U.S regional strategy. However, events that led up to the current Korean crisis, gave North Korea justification to be concerned and even outraged by strategic movements of the U.S to strengthen its militarization against the DPRK. In October 2012 the first step to worsen DPRK-ROK relations came when the United States granted authorization for ROK an exemption under the Missile Control Technology Regime. The partnership signed with the U.S in 2001 restricted Seoul’s ballistic missile range to 300 km and a payload of 500 kg. Under the new exemption their range, was extended from 300 km to 800 Km (500 Miles), bringing the whole of the DPRK’s territory and some parts of Japan and China within Seoul’s ballistic missile range.
Later in October 2012 U.S and ROK military officials came together for the annual Security Consultative Meeting which disgusted a new DPRK policy, constructed around the Asian-Pacific pivot. The new plan called “tailored deterrence,” outlined a number of possible scenarios, including minor incidents, in which both joint ROK-U.S military operations meet with disproportionate force. According to a South Korean official in Korea’s Ministry of National Defence, forces would strike DPRK “nuclear, chemical, biological weapons, ballistic missiles, mobile vehicle launchers,” with the aid of “the U.S nuclear umbrella and precision guided weapon” to be applied in both “peacetime and wartime.”
When the DPRK launched Kwangmyongsong-3 in April 2012, the DPRK described is as an earth orbit satellite, although the U.S government discredited this, claiming it was instead a ballistic missile test. The U.S response was to condemn the launch, calling it a “highly provocative act” which threatened regional security and was a direct violation to United Nations Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874, placed upon the DPRK after their first and second nuclear tests. Most experts’ disputed U.S claims, instead describing the missile as lacking the performance capabilities of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
Despite the DPRK protesting their innocence and many experts agreeing with the DPRK’s official statement, the U.S still managed to push through UN Security Council resolution 2087 on the 22nd of January, 2013. The new resolution placed further financial and travel bands, on the already heavily sanctioned DPRK, for conducting space exploration, which is legal for all states under international law. White House spokesman Jay Carney commented in response to the UN adoption of resolution 2087 “Further provocations would only increase Pyongyang’s isolation.” Pyongyang duly outraged, viewed the new resolution as U.S imperialism, one article on Rodong Sinmun described the U.S. as “noisily crying” over the satellite launch, which they viewed as “an aim to justify its military manoeuvres to seize hegemony.”
In traditional North Korean defiance, the DPRK refused to back down to what they perceive as U.S imperialism. On the 12th of February the DPRK announced they had “successfully staged” a third underground nuclear test. The day after South Korea’s defence ministry announced they plan to speed up building an integrated air and missile system, with the capability to hit all areas of the DPRK. On the other hand, The UN Security Council convened for what became a lengthy discussions between the US and China, on a new UN resolution.
On the 7th of March the UN Security Council announced they had officially ratified Resolution 2094 after a long debate, in which China seems to have been backed into a corner to agree upon crippling sanction, over destructive sanctions. South Korea attempted to push for a clause under Articles 41 and 42 of Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which would allow for the enforcement of sanctions by “military means”, allowing any state intercept and board any DPRK vessel that they suspected illicit weapons or nuclear or missile components. China managed to remove the “military means” clause, instead opting for a “credible information” clause giving them the ability to not enforce the resolution, by claiming a limited amount of intelligence. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang commented the sanctions, “necessary and moderate.” Alternatively South Korea’s ambassador to the U.N. Kim Sook, told reporters “These are the strongest and most comprehensive sanctions on North Korea” signalling that the ROK-U.S alliance came out top in the diplomatic wrangling.
The new sanctions insure the tightening of financial restrictions and cargo inspections, which require states with credible information to deny ports and overflight rights to ships and vessels with suspect cargo. It was also the first time the resolution established what constitutes luxury goods, which included a ban on the importation of jewellery, yachts and expensive racing cars, insuring that states abide by the resolution, rather than leaving it up to their individual decision. However, Australia, the European Union and Russia have included additional items, left of the list of luxury goods including fur coats, watches and prestigious liquor brands.
Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics pointed out that if the Chinese government “chooses to enforce resolution 2094 rigorously it could seriously disrupt, if not end, North Korea’s proliferation activities. Unfortunately, if past behaviour is any guide, this is unlikely to happen.” Nolanda’s opinion seems to have become a consistent argument, within Western media and the U.S congress, asserting that China holds the diplomatic power to solving the Korean crisis. It goes without saying, that if China fully implemented the sanctions and cut aid contributions, the DPRK regime would struggle to survive, quite possibly the dream scenario for U.S foreign policy makers, but a nightmare scenario for the CCP.
The problem is these sanctions are purely aimed at creating internal destabilization within the DPRK. Financial and trade restriction insure that an already crippled North Korean economy, can barely function. Contrary to much of the right wing media, North Korea sanctions have squeezed the economy, helping to contribute too many of the country’s health and food crisis since the fall of the USSR. Former U.S East Asian specialist Evans J.R. Revere commented that the new financial sanctions “eat into the ability of North Korea to finance many things.” If anything the sanctions have not helped in persuading North Korea to denuclearize, but instead persuaded North Korea to increase their “military first” policy. However, the new resolution on luxury goods brings a new element to DPRK sanctions, aimed at creating internal destabilization at the very heart of the regime.
For good reasons, China is very concerned over the collapse of the Kim regime; this would entail refugees flooding into northern China, internal and external criticism on the CCP handling of the crisis and a united Korean peninsula under Seoul’s control and allied with the United States. Figures on the number of refugees currently residing in China are sketchy the U.S Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates the figures to range anything from 20,000 to as high as 400,000. Nonetheless, being that China does not officially recognise North Koreans for refugee status, and refugees tend to blend into with the 3 million Chinese-Koreans living in Korean border provinces, any accurate figure would be impossible to obtain. Refugees peeked during the Korean famine in the early 90s causing China to become increasingly concerned of any serious destabilization in the DPRK, could result in a serious humanitarian crisis. The current Washington policy is increasingly looking like Washington is relying on a domino theory, in which continued pressure on Pyongyang would result in the collapse on the Kim regime and China would later follow in the domino effect.
The Crisis Deepens: War Rhetoric and Provocation
In response to the new UN sanctions, Pyongyang turned to war rhetoric announcing they had shredded the 60-year-old armistice, which ended the Korean War, and warning that the next step would be a “merciless” military retaliation against its enemies. In response to North Korean nuclear threats, instead of turning to dialogue, the U.S made a strategic move announcing they would restructure their missile defence plans, in order to deal more effectively with what they described as challenges posed by Iran and North Korea. In a press conference Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel described the move to restructure their missile-defence plans as advances in missile technology by North Korea and provocative rhetoric coming from Pyongyang. The new missile-defence plan would see 14 more long-range-missile interceptors to a base in Alaska by the end of 2017, along with a second missile-tracking station in Japan. China’s Foreign Ministry responded by criticized the planned deployments on March 18th, saying that missile defence “matters to the global strategic balance and to regional stability” and affects “strategic trust among relevant countries”.
The U.S decision to strengthen their missile-defence was a calculated strategic move on the side of the United States, taking advantage of the current Korean crisis. Currently the DPRK does not have the capability to place a nuclear warhead on a missile, and with a maximum range of 3,000 km they neither have the ballistic missile capability to reach the U.S mainland, while many experts seriously doubt North Korean missile capabilities. While, on the other hand, the U.S has a significant military strength in both Japan and ROK with both states having Patriot Advanced Capability 3 batteries.
Continuing to stoke tension on the peninsula the U.S carried out overflights of South Korea with nuclear-capable U.S. B-52 strategic bombers. Pyongyang responded on the 27th of March by cutting the final telephone hotline to South Korea and threatened to strike U.S. military bases in Asia and the U.S. homeland. This move had nothing to do with the ongoing military drills on the peninsula, as described by the U.S government, but more so a direct threat and provocation aimed at the collective psyche of the North Korean people. The B-52 bomber was used during the Korean War to carpet bomb North Korea, destroying the majority of the country’s infrastructure in what should be categorized as a war crime.
Instead of attempting to deflate tension the U.S again heightened tension on the 28th of March, by flying two B-2 stealth bombers over the DMZ, sending a message not just to North Korea, but also to China. The provocation was not much different to the previous days flight of B-52’s, except one clear issues the B-2 stealth is advanced U.S military technology with the ability to avoid radar detection. The media announcement of the military exercises of the B-2 stealth bombers, which were probably not picked up by North Korean, or Chinese radar sending a direct threat of force by the U.S of their advanced military capabilities.
Additionally the overflights of the B52 and B-2 Stealth Bomber had a further psychological effect on the North Korean people, with both bombers being nuclear capable. North Korean’s are fully aware of the U.S history of nuclear warfare in the region. The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 created fear of a U.S nuclear attack. Additionally many North Korean’s are aware of MacArthur’s plan to drop atomic bombs on every major Chinese city fortunately he was relieved by Truman, before he could enact his plan to destroy the Asia-Pacific. These events not only heighten North Korea’s fears of what they perceive to be a U.S nuclear threat, but also a necessity to possess the capabilities to defend themselves against what they see as hostile neighbours.
On top of all this, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya and the ongoing civil war in Syria have highlighted a vulnerability of ant-American states, which gave-up their nuclear programs only to be overthrown by the U.S government. North Korea’s close ally Iran also continues to protest sanctions and accusations of its nuclear weapons development, despite it being relatively isolated in the Middle East and having one of the small military budgets in the region, despite Western propaganda continuing to demonize the state as a regional threat.
No End in Sight: The Crisis Continues to Spiral Out of Control
Responding to the U.S overflight of B52 and B-2 bombers, Pyongyang responded announcing they had entered a “state of war” with South Korea and would restart its nuclear facility at Huang. Youfu, a professor of Korean studies at Minzu University of China told the China Daily that “What we must be cautious of is accidental events that might be misread, resulting in a firefight or even larger disasters,” although he said it is doubtful that Pyongyang will launch a planned attack against the US.
Robert Mackey’s New York Times blog, The Lede recently interviewed B. R. Myers a North Korean analyst at Dongseo University and author of “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters”. When asked about rhetoric in the North Korean propaganda videos, Myers an expert on North Korean propaganda said “the international press is distorting the reality somewhat by simply publishing the second half of all these conditional sentences.” What Myers describes as selective reporting has been present throughout the entire Korean crisis, with media organizations publishing threats of a “merciless attack on the U.S,” or “thermonuclear war,” while leaving out the first half of the sentence, which argue they are protecting themselves against “U.S aggression,” or protecting their “sovereignty.” Myers continues by saying he views the regime as exploiting the tension “to motivate the masses to work harder on various big first-economy projects, especially the land-reclamation drive now under way on the east coast.”
On the 3rd of April relations further worsened, when the DPRK announcing they had shut down access to the Kaesong Industrial region. The closing of the Kaesong complex is hardly a wise strategic move on the part of North Korea in order to threaten South Korea with economic warfare. The complex is important to both South and North Korea’s economy, generating $2 billion a year in trade for the North Korea. This marked a significant change in North Korean policy throughout the Korean crisis in which they had turned verbal threats into actions.
The day after North Korea closed Kaesong complex, the DPRK heightened tensions even further by moving two mid-range intermediate Musudan missiles to its east coast. The missiles have never been tested, but are believed to have a range of around 3,000 km, but could be extended to 4,000 km depending on the weight of the payload. This would cover any target in ROK and Japan, and possibly reach US military bases located on Guam. This has led to huge speculation over whether North Korea is attempting to conduct another ballistic-missile test. 
President Xi Jinping responded to increasing tension on the Korean peninsula, commenting in his speech at the annual Boao Forum for Asia conference “No country should be allowed to damage world peace or throw a region into chaos for selfish gains.” He continued by pointing out that all “countries – big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor – should all contribute their share in maintaining and enhancing peace.” Xi Jinping’s comment was reported in much of the Western media as China’s attempt to calm growing threats from Pyongyang. Instead Xi’s comment was aimed at all parties, but Xi’s use of the term “selfish gains” seems to be a subtle hint at the U.S pivot to Asia, rather than a North Korean attempt to have their sanctions revoked, or refusal to denuclearize.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a similar comment in a phone call with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-mooon, the day before Xi Jinping’s speech, in which he commented that China opposes provocative words and actions from any party in the region and “does not allow any troublemaking on China’s doorstep.”
There is no doubt that all parties want to avoid war breaking out on the Korean peninsula. However, North Korea and the U.S both seem to be playing a dangerous game of tit-for-tat action, initiated by the United States regional pivot. The major problem is neither party refuses to back-down to each other’s threats, in what has become a dangerous game of rhetorical propaganda and military manoeuvres.
North Korea under Kim Jong-un is the same as under his father Kim jong-il, in which nuclear weapons and a military first policy is seen as the only method of protecting North Korean sovereignty, and the regimes stability from U.S imperialism. The regime continues to escalate tension on the Korean peninsula in the hope of returning to talks, or have as what they see as unfair sanctions reduced. Alternatively the U.S has being escalating tension on the peninsula, using the crisis to their own advantage by implementing some of their strategic objectives outline in the U.S pivot to Asia. On the other hand, new sanctions and provocations seem to hint at a strategic objective to destabilize the country, rather than attempt to return to dialogue.
Western media spin continue to emphasise the urgency for China to intervene in helping to calm North Korean warlike rhetoric and provocative actions, while playing down U.S acts of provocation. However, in reality China maybe concerned over North Korea’s action’s over the past three months, but are far more concerned about what they see as the U.S attempting to assert more power in the Asia-Pacific. Beneath the surface, the Korean crisis has been manufactured by the U.S pivot, and continues to be escalated by a strategic opportunity to destabilize the DPRK, in order to contain China, and further militarize the region. Overall destabilization seems to be the strategic goal of the U.S, by forcing China into enforcing sanctions and stopping aid in order to prevent the outbreak of war. China may have no option but to abide by U.S wishes in order to prevent war breaking out in China’s backyard.
As North Korea prepares for a possible new missile test Obama has expressed hopes for a diplomatic solution, while South Korean President Park urging for talks. However, as both the U.S and ROK presidents expressed a return to diplomacy, Obama reiterated that the United States will take “all necessary steps to protect its people and to meet our obligations under our alliances in the region.” More worryingly there seems to be a growing division on the threat posed by Pyongyang with the U.S. military intelligence publishing a report, in which the claim North Korea has learnt how to mount nuclear bombs on ballistic missiles. Considering all the facts the report sounds like an attempt to push for a stronger position on the North Korean regime from hardliners in the U.S congress. With both the DPRK and the U.S locked into a zero sum game the solution doesn’t lie with China, nor with further provocation, but instead returning to direct dialogue. The crisis will more than likely disappear, becoming yet another part of the Korean peninsula’s troubled history, remaining dormant until a new Korean crisis breaks out a few months down the line. Neither side will achieve any progress in either disarmament, or a peace settlement, however, the U.S will achieve a further containment of China and militarization of its regional allies.
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