[News analysis] As theater for shows of force, Korea’s East Sea becomes a new powder keg

Posted on : 2023-07-20 17:07 KST Modified on : 2023-07-20 17:07 KST
South Korea, North Korea, the US, Japan, China and Russia have all been carrying out shows of strength in the waters east of Korea
A warship belonging to Russia’s Pacific Fleet sits in a harbor in Vladivostok on July 17. (TASS/Yonhap)
A warship belonging to Russia’s Pacific Fleet sits in a harbor in Vladivostok on July 17. (TASS/Yonhap)

The East Sea is transforming into a battleground of clashing forces as the prospects for talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula slip further out of the realm of possibility, while the US-China conflict and war in Ukraine contribute to the entrenchment of new blocs in the international community.

After the first US ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) in 42 years arrived in the port of Busan as a check against North Korea’s nuclear program, the North responded in kind by firing two short-range ballistic missiles over the East Sea. As if lying in wait, China and Russia embarked on joint exercises in which they showed off their strategic solidarity.

On Wednesday, the TASS news agency quoted a Russian Defense Ministry statement the day before saying that warships with Russia’s Pacific Fleet had left their base in Vladivostok to take part in the joint “Northern/Interaction-2023” exercise with the Chinese navy in the East Sea.

For the drill, the Russian military sent in its 6,800-ton anti-submarine destroyer Admiral Tributs, two Admiral Panteleyev destroyers, and a Gremyashchiy-class corvette.

China’s Defense Ministry also reported on July 16 that a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Northern Theater Command fleet had departed its naval base in Qingdao the day before to take part in joint exercises with Russia. The Chinese fleet consisted of five vessels: the guided-missile destroyers Qiqihar and Guiyang, the guided-missile frigates Zaozhuang and Rizhao, and the supply ship Taihu, which carried four helicopters.

The moment the two countries chose to show off their military might coincided with South Korea and the US announcing the first meeting Tuesday of their Nuclear Consultative Group — developed to bolster the US’ extended deterrence pledge to the South — and North Korea’s sensitive response to that meeting.

The Chinese Defense Ministry explained that the aims of the drills were aimed at “safeguarding strategic maritime routes” and “raising the level of strategic coordination between the Chinese and Russian militaries.” The two countries have not given an exact date for the exercises.

The situation has prompted quick activity from Japan, which has been on the alert for military activities by China.

In information issued on Tuesday, the Japanese Joint Staff announced that a Chinese warship had passed through the Korea Strait the day before to enter the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan. During a press conference the same day, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said Japan was focusing “major attention on the military activities of China and Russia” and would “commit its full energies to alertness and monitoring.”

On Wednesday, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper published a piece suggesting that China and Russia’s exercises in the waters neighboring Japan and the Korean Peninsula were meant to “curb the growing solidarity among Japan, the US, and South Korea.”

At the eighth congress of its ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in January 2021 — which came after the collapse of its summit with the US in Hanoi in late February 2019 — North Korea announced its plan to acquire five types of strategic weapons. In September 2022, its Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) promulgated a law “on the state policy on nuclear forces.”

Declaring that North Korea’s status as a nuclear power was now “irreversible,” leader Kim Jong-un oversaw 59 missile launches of different ranges in 2022 alone.

With its launch of two more ballistic missiles in the early hours of Wednesday, North Korea clearly signaled that its intention was to curb activities by US ballistic missile submarines. The missiles flew a length of 550 km: more or less exactly the distance to Busan from the launch site in Pyongyang’s Sunan area.

When US aircraft carrier groups have entered the East Sea in the past, the North has refrained from military activities to avoid the risk of an unintended confrontation. Since last autumn, however, it has adopted a “strength for strength” response where it has refused to back down.

For the 43 days between the arrival in Busan of the US nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan in late September and the end of the South Korea-US joint aerial exercise Vigilant Storm on Nov. 5, both South Korea and the US one side and North Korea on the other staged shows of force.

After the North failed to back down, the US aircraft carrier made the unusual move of suddenly heading back into the East Sea on Oct. 5. When the North fired a short-range missile south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the East Sea in early November, South Korea responded by sending up F-15 and F-16 aircraft.

It was the first time either side had fired a missile toward the other side of the NLL. With the communication hotline between them fully out of operation, the situation is one where even the slightest misjudgment by the other side could cause an armed clash that threatens the very fate of the Korean people.

The full-scale military activities by China and Russia in the East Sea date back to the summer of 2019, when conflicts began surfacing between Washington and Beijing. In its 2022 defense white paper, the Japanese Ministry of Defense observed that since 2019, there had been six joint flights by China and Russia with bombers over the East Sea, East China Sea, and Pacific Ocean.

On July 23, 2019, a precarious situation unfolded during the first joint exercises with strategic bombers when a Russian early warning aircraft entered the skies over the Dokdo islets, prompting the South Korean Air Force to scramble 19 fighter aircraft and fire live rounds as a warning.

Shortly after South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol hinted in an April interview with Reuters at the possibility of providing military support to Ukraine, Russia sent eight Tu-22M3 supersonic strategic bombers — which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons — into the skies over the Sea of Okhotsk and northern East Sea.

With the inclusion of an anti-submarine destroyer in its latest drills, Russia made no secret of its aim to curb US ballistic missile submarine activities.

As the situation shapes into a harsh confrontation between South Korea, the US, and Japan on one side and North Korea, China, and Russia on the other, the East Sea is suddenly becoming one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world.

By Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent; Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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