Russian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, RIAC Member, RIAC Vice-President
Realized that a new massive military conflict in the Korean Peninsula would cause the U.S. serious human and financial losses, undermining both the U.S. positions in a highly important region and the entire system of Washington's alliances with foreign states.
Is Korean War Possible?
The only way to ease tensions in the Korean Peninsula is through negotiations. International security problems cannot be solved by themselves. Threats of surgical strike or intimidating military drills cannot solve these problems either. The situation could escalate to a massive war at any moment: who can guarantee one of the two opposing parties on the peninsula do not experience a computer glitch?
The United States is considering the possibility of striking military targets in North Korea if Pyongyang does not scrap its nuclear missile program, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated during his visit to Seoul on 17 March 2017. According to Tillerson, Washington has run out of “strategic patience” with regard to Pyongyang, and the Trump administration is considering a number of economic, diplomatic and, if needed, military measures in response to the North Korean ballistic missile launches. Tillerson also called for the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea, something China and Russia have opposed.
Tillerson did not reinvent the wheel in the U.S. approach to the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula. The possibility of a military operation against North Korea was seriously considered in Washington back in the 1990s, immediately after talks started about Pyongyang's nuclear program. Back then, however, the plan was dismissed. The Americans still remembered the lessons of the 1950–53 Korean War, and realized that a new massive military conflict in the Korean Peninsula would cause the U.S. serious human and financial losses, undermining both the U.S. positions in a highly important region and the entire system of Washington's alliances with foreign states.
However, while previously the talk was about ensuring the security of South Korea, America's ally, now Pyongyang, with its potential to build intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, may become capable of delivering a nuclear missile strike on the U.S. itself. Hence the current discussion in the U.S. media about the possibility of striking North Korean nuclear facilities, followed by the statement delivered by the U.S. secretary of state.
Such a surgical strike would certainly throw the North Korean nuclear program back many years, if not decades. But what would be the cost of this? The problem is that Greater Seoul, with a population of around 25 million, is situated very close to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas. On the other side of the DMZ is the world's most powerful grouping of heavy artillery, which certainly will not remain idle if the U.S. launches an operation against the North Korean nuclear facilities.
A North Korean artillery attack on Seoul could cause the South Korean capital city just as much damage as a nuclear attack.
A North Korean artillery attack on Seoul, experts believe, could cause the South Korean capital city just as much damage as a nuclear attack. Such a strike would certainly warrant a powerful South Korean response, which would signify the beginning of a new Korean war. However, even if the situation did not escalate that far, such a development would cause heavy damage to the U.S.-South Korean alliance. From the standpoint of the South Koreans, a U.S. strike on North Korea resulting in a North Korean retaliatory strike on Seoul would prove that the alliance with America was not a guarantee of South Korea's security but rather a potential threat to that security. It would reflect the Americans' readiness to solve issues pertaining to their own security at the expense of their South Korean partners, effectively using the latter as a live shield.
The Korean Peninsula: A Crisis of Diplomacy
and the Triumph of the Law of Force?
Tillerson's statements in Seoul are particularly notable in connection with other February events that are directly related to the Korean nuclear security situation. Pyongyang tested new ballistic missiles, whereas the U.S. and South Korea launched traditional joint military drills, Foal Eagle and Keу Resolve. The partners stressed that, in the light of Pyongyang's 2016 nuclear tests and its recent missile launch, the scale of this year's exercises would be massive. The full scope of the forces to be involved is so far unknown, but the media has mentioned a U.S. Navy strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson, as well as nuclear-powered submarines, strategic bombers, and F-22 and F-35 stealth jets.
Beijing has also been taking measures. Six days after the North Korean missile launches in February, China reacted in the spirit of the UN Security Council's Resolution 2270 by introducing a ban on purchases of coal from North Korea until the end of 2017, thus robbing Pyongyang of up to 40% of its export revenue. As for the U.S.-South Korean exercises, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 8 March 2017 suggested that North Korea suspend its missile launches and freeze its nuclear program in exchange for the suspension of the U.S. and South Korean maneuvers. “This would be a suspension in exchange for a suspension,” Wang Yi noted, adding that the measure could eventually help the two parties sit down at the negotiating table. The U.S. and South Korea rejected the proposal just one hour after it was made.
Washington and Seoul believe that the current unprecedented concentration of military forces around the Korean Peninsula will prompt Pyongyang to behave in a more reserved manner. However, many experts believe that it might have the exact opposite result: new North Korean nuclear missile tests cannot be ruled out.
Washington and Seoul believe that the current unprecedented concentration of military forces around the Korean Peninsula will prompt Pyongyang to behave in a more reserved manner.
There are still routes open to a compromise on the nuclear issue. Despite the statements by the North Korean leadership to the effect that it will not give up nuclear weapons under any circumstances and despite the fact that a provision on North Korea's nuclear status is a part of that country's constitution, Pyongyang could still freeze its nuclear program at the current level. Experts estimate North Korea's current nuclear arsenal at between 10 and 15 charges. North Korean military specialists realize that increasing this figure dramatically, say, to 100–150 charges, would not make the country's deterrent potential 10 to 15 times greater. For this reason, seeing as the main deterrent forces have already been created, North Korea may be prepared to discuss the possibility of going back on the idea of increasing them further, which is in fact what the Chinese foreign minister proposed. Talks may follow the traditional North Korean path: Pyongyang's readiness to make concessions would need to be met by its partners' readiness to pay, such as in the form of giving up joint U.S.-South Korean exercises and lifting some of the current anti-Pyongyang sanctions.
Negotiations are the only way to ease tensions in the Korean Peninsula. North Korea needs to be a party to such negotiations, so the refusal by the U.S. and its allies to conduct talks with North Korea appears strange, to say the least. The approach towards Pyongyang cannot be all about the whip; North Korea needs to be offered the carrot as well.
Washington and Seoul should also assess the downside of deploying the U.S. THAAD system in South Korea. As we know, many South Koreans do not welcome the idea, and not just because the deployment would cost at least $2.3 billion, of which Seoul would have to pay half. The emergence of a THAAD system in South Korea would certainly result in countermeasures on the part of other countries, and not just North Korea. China is already taking certain steps in this direction.
The Korean Peninsula's nuclear problem is a direct consequence of the high tensions between the two Koreas, so resolving it is directly conditioned on a normalization in relations between the two states.
Putting the Korean issue back on the UN agenda after a break of over 40 years could help restore peace on the peninsula. Now appears to be the best time for this. Ban Ki-moon, himself a South Korean, could not be impartial in his approaches to North Korea, and Pyongyang ignored the man in an emphatic manner, but his time as the UN secretary-general is now over. His successor, Antonio Guterres, has no links to Korea whatsoever so could demonstrate a fairly objective approach to a Korean settlement.
Talks may follow the traditional North Korean path: Pyongyang's readiness to make concessions would need to be met by its partners' readiness to pay, such as in the form of giving up joint U.S.-South Korean exercises and lifting some of the current anti-Pyongyang sanctions.
As the first step in this direction, the UN Security Council could adopt a declaration to the effect that the Korean War is a page of the past that needs to be turned. This would strip the UN Command in Korea, which is currently a purely U.S.-controlled structure, of its formal ground for existence. At the same time, bilateral South Korean-U.S. military structures created in accordance with intergovernmental agreements would remain present in South Korea.
This could be followed by a peace conference on the Korean Peninsula under UN auspices, which would consider the possibility of North Korea signing peace treaties and establishing diplomatic relations with South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, or the two Koreas reducing the size of their arsenals and armed forces and developing economic cooperation. It is obvious that such an idea would not be embraced immediately. On the other hand, the proposal to hold six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear problem also took some gestation time.
Putting the Korean issue back on the UN agenda after a break of over 40 years could help restore peace on the peninsula.
A peace treaty that would put an end to the military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula should become a much higher-level document than merely a non-aggression pact between the parties in the Korean War. It would need to provide the legal framework for the two Koreas' partnership without the intervention of external forces, as stipulated by the joint statement of the two countries of July 4, 1972. Such a treaty would turn North Korea from a pariah state into a full member of the international community. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council could act as guarantors of peace and cooperation between North Korea and South Korea.
Problems related to international security cannot resolve themselves. Nor will they be solved with threats of surgical strikes and intimidating military drills. The situation could escalate to a large-scale military conflict at any moment: who can guarantee that either of the Koreas will not suffer a computer glitch?