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Ron Ben-Yishai:Pyongyang has the edge

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Op-ed: North Korea’s belligerent policy of brinkmanship backed by vast military superiority.

North Korea is currently facing major domestic distress. The sanctions imposed on it and its agricultural difficulties have led to serious hunger, the UN reports. Yet instead of suspending its nuclear program and ballistic missiles and resuming talks with the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea (which promised generous aid in food and fuel,) Pyongyang is attempting to extort them via war threats and provocations. This, in essence, is the backdrop for the grave incident where the communist country shelled a South Korean island not too far from the two Koreas western border.

The latest incident is the fifth in a series of grave provocations initiated by North Korea in the past two years, ever since talks hit an impasse. Notwithstanding its pledges, North Korea held a (not particularly successful) nuclear experiment, and also undertook a series of ballistic missile tests, despite US warnings. In the wake of these tests, the United Nations imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Pyongyang, yet the Stalinist regime headed by ill Kim Jong-il was not deterred.

In March of this year, a North Korean submarine sunk a South Korean navy ship. North Korea denied any involvement in the incident, yet a UN commission of inquiry ruled that Pyongyang was indeed responsible, prompting the US to impose further sanctions. In response, North Korea announced that nobody could guarantee this would not have grave implications for peace and stability in the region. A few days ago, Pyongyang presented an American scientist with a new uranium-enrichment facility, and Tuesday it shelled the South Korean island. This act brings the two Koreas dangerously close to the brink of war.

At the same time, North Korea constantly continues, with active Chinese diplomatic assistance, to invite the US to resume the talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program, in exchange for economic benefits and lifting of the sanctions. It’s easy to see what the North Korean leadership aims to achieve via this belligerent brinkmanship. The main target is to create a situation whereby the sanctions are lifted and Pyongyang receives an immediate and significant supply of food and fuel, before Pyongyang ever commits to curbing its military nuclear program, and before International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are ever allowed to return to North Korea.

The other objective is domestic. Current leader Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke two years ago and is having trouble functioning. Hence, a few months ago he embarked on the process of handing over power to his son, Kim Jong-Un. However, the regime in Pyongyang is concerned that domestic and international rivals would take advantage of the sensitive period in order to destabilize the regime and extort political and military compromises. Through their provocations against South Korea, Kim Jong-il and his generals showcase their power, confidence, and hold on the country in a manner which they believe will deter their rivals.

No answer to North’s missiles

This strategy leaves South Korea and the Obama Administration helpless. South Korea is well familiar with its own military inferiority vis-à-vis North Korea’s million-man army, which is equipped with modern arms and ballistic missiles. While South Korea’s arms and aircraft are more advanced than Pyongyang’s, the quantitative inferiority vis-à-vis the North and the North Korea regime’s willingness to sustain casualties and destruction decisively tilt the balance in the North’s favor.

Moreover, despite its technological and industrial strength, South Korea does not possess substantial capability to intercept missiles and rockets. Seoul is currently in initial stages of acquiring such systems (including the “Green Pine” radar system made in Israel.)

Hence, even if it does not use the nuclear weapons it may or may not possesses, North Korea can literally raze Seoul in a matter of days and gravely undermine the flourishing South Korean industrial sector and economy. Should a war break out, the roughly 40,000 US troops deployed in South Korea ever since the 1950s are also at risk. These forces possess advanced Patriot missiles capable of intercepting ballistic missiles, yet in low numbers compared to the North’s rocket and artillery arsenal.

The South Korean government is well aware of its situation, and also of the fact that the Obama Administration, which is entangled in Afghanistan and Iraq, would not rush into another war in the Korea Peninsula. Hence, Korean President Lee Myung-bak quickly declared that despite the North’s blatant provocation, his country has no intention of being dragged into a conflict and would do everything it can to avoid escalation.

North Korea testing Obama

Similarly to Nazi era, failure to respond to North Korean aggression could lead to war

All eyes in the international theater are currently on Washington. The White House also understands that the North Korean attack on the South Korean island is a challenge to the US no less so – and possibly even more so – than it is a provocation towards Seoul. Officials in Washington know that a failure to respond in this case would have grave strategic and international implications: Iran is closely monitoring North Korea’s conduct on the nuclear and sanctions front, and there are quite a few indications that Pyongyang serves as a model for emulation. On top of it, there is the close cooperation between the two states on the missile and nuclear development front.

Syria is in the same boat and draws from North Korea not only military and nuclear assistance, but also inspiration for provocative conduct vis-à-vis the US. Meanwhile, the concern shown by America’s traditional allies in Asia and in the Middle East is growing in the face of the weakness and helplessness displayed by Washington in respect to Pyongyang’s provocations.

Major question marks regarding America’s power and leadership are in the air, ranging from Riyadh to Tokyo: If this is how the White House conducts itself vis-à-vis the small, poor North Korea, would it have the power and desire to protect the oil states against Iran should Tehran decide, for example, to disrupt oil tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf? Can Japan and Taiwan count on the US to protect them in face of Chinese aggression?

And that’s not all. There is substantial danger that should North Korea’s provocation not be met with an effective Western, international response, it would provide Pyongyang with an incentive to embark on additional adventures with graver results – to the point of all-out war – as was the case with Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II.

We can assume that at this time, South Korea and the US would not be initiating military retaliation to the North Korean attack. It is also doubtful whether the US would adopt a grave step such as a total naval blockade against North Korea that may escalate to war. South Korea would be the first to oppose such move. However, the US still has two options on the diplomatic and economic front that may deter the regime in Pyongyang and make it think twice before undertaking the next provocation.

The Key: China

One option is to enlist China to the cause of exerting pressure on its ally, Pyongyang, to put an end to the provocations and return to the negotiating table. China has a substantial interest at this time in appeasing Washington, which is pressing Beijing to devaluate its currency and improve the balance of trade between the two countries. China also holds more than a billion-dollar worth of US bonds and has an interest in seeing an American economic recovery. Hence, China is attentive to Washington’s concerns and is uninterested in seeing the US completely losing its superpower status.

Another option available to the US is to convene the Security Council and pass a resolution that imposes further sanctions on North Korea and even threatens Pyongyang with Chapter VII in the UN charter, which allows for military action against a rogue state that jeopardizes world peace. China would then be facing an uncomfortable position, where it is forced to impose its veto power in defiance of all other Security Council members or endorse the resolution and become a party to sanctions against its ally. In any case, the key to restraining North Korea via non-violent means is currently in Beijing’s hands.

Should all this fail, the US has another possibility at its disposal: Redeploying tactical nuclear weapons on South Korea’s soil. Such move would not only make clear the seriousness of America’s intentions to Pyongyang, but also prove to China that it risks a nuclear war at its doorstep. This move would also signal to Iran what it can expect should it continue with its nuclear provocations.

Should Washington be able to prompt China to impose effective pressure on Pyongyang, or should the US deploy nuclear weapons in South Korea, this would have a restraining effect on Iran on the nuclear front. However, should the White House show weakness, the North Korean model is expected to repeat in our region, in a doubly dangerous fashion.

About Ron Ben-Yishai



Written by Theophyle

November 25, 2010 at 9:07 am

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