At a time when the Ukraine crisis has hogged international limelight impacting trade of energy, food and supply chain disruptions and many related worrying fallouts, the world seems to have drifted into a new era of Cold War with the US, West and NATO in one camp pitted against Russia and China on the other. There are some minor players but inconsequential ones on Russia’s side. India as the G-20 Chair has recently deeply engaged in diplomacy with the Foreign Ministers of the group gathering in New Delhi to seek a solution. Similarly Japan as the G-7 head is going to host the summit in Hiroshima later this year. The Ukraine issue is again going to dominate discussion.
By Prof Rajaram Panda
Amidst such troubling times, tensions in the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan Straits show no sign of ebbing. While China continues to threaten the island nation and violates its air space on a frequent basis, North Korea keeps South Korea on its edge by frequent missile firings. To counter the North Korean threat the US and South Korea hold joint military exercises on a regular basis to keep Pyongyang in check.
In the latest of this narrative, South Korean and US special commandos conducted “realistic” combined drill near Seoul, involving AC-130J and MC-130J warplanes, to strengthen the “ironclad” security commitment between the allies. The Exercise Teak that kicked off a month-long run in early February 2023 was in response to North Korea’s missile launches, including that of a long-range one on 18 February. South Korea saw it as a provocation. While the AC-130J warplane was brought from Hurlburt Air Base in Florida, the MC-130J multi-mission combat transport aircraft came from the 353rd Special Operations Wing at Kadena Air Base in Japan. It was for the first time the US deployed an AC-130J, which is a heavily armed, long-endurance, ground-attack plane to South Korea, demonstrating the seriousness of the threat from North Korea.
The deployment of these two warplanes with lethal capability to operate in tough situations is in accordance with support to the extended deterrence which both the US and South Korea have agreed. Extended deterrence refers to the US’ commitment to mobilising a full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear, to defend its allies. These two special operations aircraft can provide throughout different training scenarios with both the US and South Korea’s Special Operation Forces. Earlier, the two allies used to conduct the Exercise Teak Knife, which is taking place since the 1990s, mainly behind closed doors. The plan was revised as North Korea’s missile launches did not stop.
Expanding the ambit of their cooperation and strengthening capabilities, both the allies are also working on a joint Table-Top Exercise (TTX) that goes beyond military manoeuvers to embrace diplomacy, information and economics. The two countries took part in the US Defense Department’s 8th Deterrence Strategy Committee Table-Top Exercise (DSC TTX) at the Pentagon on 22 February 2023. This shows that the allies are serious in moving towards “extended deterrence” against threats from North Korea.
During the US-South Korea Summit in May 2022, the US President Joe Biden had pledged that the US was committed to extended deterrence that utilises all defence capabilities, including nuclear weapons. In the light of this understanding and commitment, the visit of a Korean delegation along with the US counterparts to a US nuclear submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, assumes significance. This is because such a visit was not only the first of its kind but Kings Bay is home to Ohio-class nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines that carry nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Such close cooperation was meant to strengthen the alliance’s executing power.
Pyongyang fumed. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that a joint US-South Korea visit to a nuclear submarine training facility was a “nuclear war demonstration against the North Korea and therefore a hostile act comparable to a declaration of war”. Pyongyang claimed that the US can only prevent the vicious cycle of escalating military tension in the Korean Peninsula through showing “clear and practical” measures, such as “abandoning its commitment to deploy” strategic assets to South Korea and suspending joint drills that target North Korea.
The coming months might see more tensions because the US and South Korean militaries are scheduled to conduct their combined Freedom Shield exercise in the Spring season and bilateral and trilateral drills with Japan. The US and its two East Asian allies – Japan and South Korea – have already conducted missile interception exercises off the east coast of South Korea in the second week of February 2023.
North Korea’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons development and missile launches, and by ignoring that the peoples are starving because of severe food shortages, means that the regime remains isolated from the international community. North Korea’s activities further strengthen US-South Korea alliance relationship as the larger issue of region’s security is involved.
In retaliation to North Korea’s activities, though South Korea is keen to mend ties with its Northern neighbour, it was compelled to announce its own independent sanctions against North Korea’s illicit cyber activities, which it blames for funding Pyongyang’s weapons programme. Despite Pyongyang’s provocations, South Korea remains always open to dialogue. Seoul urges that Pyongyang ends its provocations and return to denuclearization negotiations. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is slated to visit Washington in April 2023. Both sides are expected to discuss future measures in the interest of securing peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula.
An interesting development that has suddenly propped up is that two neighbours, both adversaries, keep their ties soured with the events that happened during the World War II and during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, seem to be now keen to mend ties. This is because of the common threat both Japan and South Korea face from North Korea. Being both allies of the US tied with security treaties, this seems to be an opportune moment for both to bury the hatchet. Such a gesture shall also help the US to work together with both in a congenial atmosphere.
South Korea’s President Yoon has openly said that his government is keen to mend ties with Japan as Japan has gone from ‘aggressor to partner’ and shares the same universal values as South Korea and cooperates with the US against North Korean threat. He made this observation during a ceremony marking the 104th anniversary of the 1 March Movement against Japanese colonial rule in Seoul. His remarks that Japan has “transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner” highlights his push to improve soured ties with Tokyo. This change of position could have stemmed from common concerns over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
In contrast to his predecessor, the liberal Moon Jae-in, Yoon Suk Yeol is a conservative. After taking office in May 2022, he has taken a firmer stance against North Korea and wants to improve relations with Japan as part of that effort. When North Korea launched more than 95 missiles, a record high, and some of the missiles prompted air raid alerts and shelters warnings in South Korea and Japan, Yoon hardened his position further. Yoon has joined Japan and the US in trilateral military drills to send a message to Pyongyang that it should not mess up further.
The big question is: will North Korea be deterred? Its sending of at least five surveillance drones into South Korea in late December 2022 shows no indication that it shall change its stance. Dialogue, diplomacy – all have failed in the past. The big question is: Can India come out of its shell and try to reach out to North Korea to initiate a peace process? Those in the South Block might ponder over this and could possibly advice the political leaders to take some initiative. After all, nuclear weapons are dangerous and peace and stability is to everyone’s interest.
This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them.