Joint military drills on the Korean peninsula involving Seoul and Washington are a regular occurrence, taking place annually as a show of continued co-operation between the United States and her South Korean allies. Equally predictable is Pyongyang’s response, regularly denouncing such exercises as covert preparation for combative engagement.
Foal Eagle operations began this year amidst elevated tensions. As anticipated, North Korea’s reaction entailed vociferous objection. That the antagonism and posturing attributed to Kim Jong-un has been particularly acute this time around, however, is symptomatic of a young leader attempting to demonstrate proficiency beyond his years.
Supplementary drills, termed Key Resolve, have involved 10,000 South Korean troops and 3,000 Americans, as well as the 10,000 US personnel involved in Foal Eagle. In response to increasingly fiery rhetoric from North Korea, the US also deployed sophisticated military technologies and advanced delivery systems over the peninsula: during March, Washington co-ordinated flights of nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and B-2 stealth fighters over South Korea, dropping munitions on a South Korean island range in a demonstration of military superiority and a timely reminder of the pinpoint accuracy of American weapons technology.
Kim Jong-un condemned the sorties as an “ultimatum that they will ignite a nuclear war at any cost on the Korean Peninsula” and ordered the Korean Peoples Army (KPA) to ready strategic rockets to stand-by, declaring that North Korea should “mercilessly strike” the US and her military outposts. The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland similarly described Key Resolve exercises as “a clear declaration of war”.
The increased bombast reverberating from Pyongyang comes at a time of strengthened UN sanctions, designed to prohibitively increase the cost of illicit nuclear programmes following a third nuclear test in February and a three-stage rocket test in December 2012. That the Kim dynasty has been able to oversee these developments is testament to the laxity with which previous rounds of sanctions were administered.
In the weeks since tighter sanctions were imposed, numerous threats have been directed towards both America and her allies; a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” was promised against the US, while once more threatening to dispense with the Korean War armistice and cut diplomatic ties with Seoul. When these provocations went unrewarded, Mr Kim announced plans to “readjust and restart” nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. Refusing to bow to Pyongyang’s ostentation, the US called Mr Kim’s bluff: Chuck Hagel vowed to “make clear” that such provocations “are taken ... very seriously”, while John Kerry affirmed that Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Washington had “committed to take action together” and to “making that goal of denuclearisation a reality”.
The 15-0 vote at the UN Security Council in March is particularly significant insofar as China, despite being North Korea’s only ally, co-sponsored extended sanctions. This is a strong indication that pressure on the Kim regime is beginning to escalate. Encouragingly, in a display of continuing displeasure, Beijing appears to have stepped up inspections of cargo bound for North Korea, though must now proceed cautiously so as not to upset the perceived regional balance of power and risk triggering a North Korean implosion. As Pyongyang’s lifeline, China must make careful calculations concerning the cutting of vital supplies; to restrict aid too far, particularly in terms of fuel or food, could spark a chain reaction of instability and volatility.
Recent political transitions across the region have seemingly been central in efforts to enhance Pyongyang’s regional standing. Both Japan and South Korea have recently elected new premiers who, like the young Kim, are still in the process of consolidating power and finding their political footings. Similarly, in Beijing, the Communist Party has recently undergone the decennial process of political handover, with a new staff now manning the Politburo Standing Committee.
Surrounded by leaders of equal inexperience, Mr Kim has attempted to seize an opportunity to assert himself and bolster support at home by demonstrating strength on the international stage. By conducting further rounds of nuclear and weapons tests, Mr Kim would have hoped to exploit any resultant response from the international community as a rationale for readying the troops, denouncing the armistice agreement with southern neighhbours, and threatening to strike the US.
Such shows of perceived strength, along with any associated concessions secured or repercussions avoided as a result, appear designed to cement confidence in Mr Kim’s leadership at home. Indeed, with Washington announcing in early-April the postponement of planned Minuteman 3 ballistic missile tests to prevent misinterpretation, Pyongyang will likely wax lyrical about an enforced American climbdown following diplomatic and military pressure.
However, this is a principal reason to suspect that threats emanating from Pyongyang are bravado; efforts to secure political power through military means have been intended primarily for domestic consumption by a leader whose rapid rise through the KPA has led to questions concerning his ability and qualification to lead. Given countervailing sentiments from both Washington and Seoul, the Kim regime is highly unlikely to escalate the current situation beyond hostile rhetoric and chance the assured destruction that provoking a retaliatory onslaught would bring. While the US is not ignoring threats emanating from Pyongyang, spending $1 billion to strengthen ballistic missile interception systems in Fort Greely, Alaska, that this additional capacity will not become operational until 2017 indicates strong doubts over Mr Kim’s intentions and the abilities of Pyongyang’s military hardware.
It is doubtful that an act of North Korean aggression will be immediately forthcoming. At a time of heightened international tensions, and amidst promises of retaliation directed from all angles, to do so would be a seemingly suicidal move for the already-isolated regime. At the same time, while not completely implausible, it remains unlikely that Pyongyang will seek to further intensify or extend the current bout of belligerent sentiment. With Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing responding in kind to Mr Kim’s attempted browbeating, and possessing proven military potential to follow through with such promises, the North Korean regime is unlikely to risk actual conflict through miscalculation.
In a week where international news concerning North Korea was dominated by a breaking scandal concerning the BBC and LSE, military tensions appear to have taken a back seat. With the Kim regime having nowhere further to go using rhetoric alone, it is likely that this is where they will remain until the next round of military drills.