The fantastical myth of first strike haunting the Korean Peninsula

Posted on : 2023-04-23 10:47 KST Modified on : 2023-04-23 10:47 KST
As the region’s powers all run preemptive strike drills, war could never be closer
After North Korea fired a ballistic missile on April 13, two days ahead of North Korea’s Day of the Sun (the birth anniversary of founder Kim Il-sung), a U-2S surveillance plane takes off from US Forces Korea Osan Air Base. (Yonhap)
After North Korea fired a ballistic missile on April 13, two days ahead of North Korea’s Day of the Sun (the birth anniversary of founder Kim Il-sung), a U-2S surveillance plane takes off from US Forces Korea Osan Air Base. (Yonhap)

“Attack is the best defense”— or so said Count Alfred von Schlieffen, who served as chief of staff of the German imperial war machine from 1891 to 1905.

That mentality originated from the geographical anxiety of Germany, which was lodged between two potential enemies, Russia on the east and France on the west. It was backed by confidence in the maneuverability and fighting power of the German troops.

That resulted in the “Schlieffen plan,” which proposed that Germany could defeat both of those foes if it launched a crushing attack on France and then wheeled around to attack Russia. While the Schlieffen plan can’t be wholly blamed for World War I, it was both the fuse that ignited war across Europe and the primary cause of Germany’s defeat in the war.

Japan’s swelling defense budget

The Korean Peninsula is in jeopardy. Northeast Asia teeters on the brink. The region is haunted by a baseless belief in taking the offensive, what might be called the myth of the first strike.

All countries in the region have been adopting an aggressive strategy. They’re all developing and deploying offensive forces.

We’ve now reached the point where all those countries are openly practicing a preemptive strike. This looks like a return to Europe and the Balkan Peninsula in the months before World War I.

A small incident or trivial mistake could ignite the powder keg of the Korean Peninsula.

The perennial arms race on the Korean Peninsula has entered a new phase. South and North Korea are both pursuing preemptive strike capabilities under the pretense of defense. Japan is developing what it calls “counterstrike capability,” which is a euphemism for the ability to launch strikes on enemy bases.

The US is expanding its long-standing doctrine of extended deterrence into integrated deterrence with South Korea and Japan aimed at terminating the North Korean regime. China is modernizing its military and expanding its nuclear forces. NATO is increasing its military activities in the Pacific Ocean in a manner atypical for the “North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

A preemptive strike is no longer merely a concept in state security strategy or operational plans. All these countries’ weapon systems are being transformed.

Take Japan, for example.

In three security documents adopted at the end of 2022, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida selected “counterstrike capability” as a new strategic objective. Japan will significantly increase its defense spending each year, starting with 2023, with the goal of reaching 10 trillion yen by 2027 — double the 2022 level.

The key objective of this audacious increase in defense spending is to secure the ability to attack enemy bases.

If former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s adoption of legislation about collective self-defense in 2015 opened the door for the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to operate outside Japan, the Kishida government has begun building the military capacity to actually kick the door open and step outside.

In the near term, Japan plans to purchase Tomahawk cruise missiles from the US and to upgrade the Type 12 surface-to-ship missile that’s currently in the JSDF’s arsenal. With a range of 200 km, the Type 12 is a shore-launched defensive missile designed to target enemy naval vessels launching an attack off the coast of Japan.

However, the missile has been modified to increase its range to 1,500 kilometers (932 miles). A range of this length would allow the missile to hit any point in North Korea, even from mainland Japan, as well as putting the entire coast of China, including Beijing and Shanghai, in its range.

The plan to improve the Type 12 missile also includes the development of a model that can be launched from a warship or fighter jet. If completed, the missile would be capable of striking anywhere in China.

Bill US will stick Korea with at summit

The Yoon administration already has a three-axis defense plan with the “kill chain” preemptive strike platform, the Korean Air and Missile Defense system, and the Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation system.

Seemingly insufficient, the administration is now proposing the “left of launch” tactic to disrupt an opponent\'s missiles. The “kill chain” platform already refers to first-strike capabilities. Now, they want to make sure to “kill” North Korea’s missiles before they even get launched.

And as if that still isn’t enough, the administration wants to participate in cyber and electronic warfare to neutralize North Korea’s military capabilities before it even tries to launch missiles.

The administration is seeking the military capability of intercepting any missile North Korea manages to launch with a missile defense system and launch full-scale retaliation.

It has also drawn up a decapitation plan to take out North Korea’s leadership in the event of an emergency and has assigned the task to the Special Mission Brigade. It operates self-destructing drones for precision strikes and is developing “high-powered ballistic missiles” to hit bases deep underground.

Since the turn of the millennium, the US has already demonstrated preemptive strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under President Joe Biden, the US continues to develop and produce weapons systems that enhance its preemptive capabilities, including missile defense systems and hypersonic missiles.

Since taking office, Biden has taken a sharp turn to “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to preemptive strikes with nuclear weapons. We are starting to see what Secretary of State Antony Blinken meant when he stated that US allies are “vital to our national security” and are “force multipliers.”

The US has been selling Tomahawk missiles, which were used in previous preemptive strikes, to Japan and has been actively supporting the Kishida administration’s emphasis on and buildup of Japan’s national defense. In the upcoming South Korea-US summit, the US will probably offer a generous showing of hospitality, even more so than omurice, and then stick Korea with the bill.

Biden will accept payment in the form of the Yoon administration stepping forward to the front lines with North Korea and China to complete the military cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan.

Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, once stated that the US can rally the international community to combat China’s expansion, and will ensure that its allies do the same.

March 2023 was a cruel month, with the Korean Peninsula becoming a testing ground for preemptive strikes. On March 13, the South Korea-US joint drill known as “Freedom Shield” began.

North Korea launched two strategic cruise missiles from a submarine in the Sinpo area of South Hamgyong Province the day before, on March 12. This was followed by a series of drills, including a tactical nuclear counterattack, which was also a preemptive strike drill.

South Korea and the US had been conducting “Teak Knife” drills, which involve run-throughs of the decapitation strategy, since early February, even before North Korea began its preemptive strike drills.

March 20 marked the start of the Ssangyong (“double dragon”) landing drill. North Korea’s response came the day before the drill even commenced. On March 19, North Korea launched a nuclear missile from a silo to practice the aerial detonation of a nuclear warhead.

The US aircraft carrier USS Nimitz arrived in Busan on March 28, and landing exercises reached a peak, but North Korea “welcomed” the carrier by launching an autonomous underwater vehicle (nuclear attack drone) it called “Haeil-1” on March 25, and detonating it underwater on March 27.

Perhaps it was unprecedented for North Korea to conduct a preemptive strike drill during a joint South Korea-US exercise. But it was equally unprecedented for South Korea, the US, and Japan to conduct an integrated military drill. Trilateral military cooperation is now a reality, and everyone is practicing preemptive strikes.

Shouldn’t we now be concerned about actual war?

By Suh Jae-jung, professor of political science and international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo

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