Mar. 10. On Mar. 11
By Kang Tae-ho, senior staff writer
A grim mood hovers over the Korean Peninsula on Mar. 11, the day North Korea has said it would nullify the Korean War armistice agreement and other inter-Korean non-aggression agreements. North Korean troops were reported to be in a combat mobilization posture, while the South planned to go ahead as scheduled with its Key Resolve combined exercises with the US. As the two sides faced off in a kind of “chicken race” of large-scale military exercises under a pseudo-state of war on the peninsula, many observers are voicing growing fears of a potential clash.
The belligerent conditions date back to March 12, 1993, when North Korea responded to International Atomic Energy Agency demands for special inspections by pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Almost twenty years to the day later, both sides are once again issuing rhetoric about “unsparing retribution” and “annihilating the other side’s regime.”
The Key Resolve annual command post exercise, which starts Mar. 11, comes on the heels of the launch of the Foal Eagle field training exercise, which runs from Mar. 1 to end of April and will include land, air, sea, and special operation drills with 200,000 South Korean troops and 10,000 US troops participating. Mar. 11 is also the day North Korea has said it will cut off the current communication channel at Panmunjom and establish combat mobilization readiness with its own large-scale national exercises.
After reports that Hyon Yong-chol, chairman of the (North) Korean People’s Army Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanied military officials on a Mar. 9 inspection of Panmunjom, the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s state newspaper, reported on Mar. 10 that the country’s army, navy, air force, and anti-aircraft units were “just waiting for the final order to attack.” Already, the military there has prepared for national level exercises at a large scale around the Wonson area in Gangwon province, with test launches of existing medium and short-range missiles, as well as new long-range ones. Troops from the army, navy, and air force are scheduled to participate, along with special forces units.
The situation now is ripe for a provocation like the 2010 artillery attack on South Korea‘s Yeonpyeong Island to escalate into all-out war. However, the Kaesong Industrial Complex remains open in North Korea, and the country has continued to refrain from any direct denunciations of President Park Geun-hye. Another faintly positive signal is the fact that the North Korean foreign ministry has not announced any specific actions - such as a nuclear weapons test - in response to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2094.
Despite North Korean threats, operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex have continued as normal. 522 South Koreans went into the complex on Mar. 11 and 337 reentered South Korea from the North. There are around 780 South Koreans residing in the complex.
This stands in contrast with its reaction to Resolution 2087 on Jan. 23, which was to pledge an immediate “physical response.” Its third nuclear test followed soon after on Feb. 12. But the Mar. 9 foreign ministry statement issued on the latest resolution only mentioned that North Korea plans to make its status as a nuclear and satellite power “permanent,” without any announcements of specific response measures. This suggests that the recent rise in bombastic rhetoric and threats to back out of existing agreements has been accompanied by fewer actual threats of action. Some are tentatively expressing hope that dialogue may well resume again if North Korea avoids additional provocations (including nuclear testing) and the vicious cycle of sanctions leading to provocations can be broken.
Washington and Beijing are also expected to take active steps to respond to the situation. On Mar. 9, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi called for a resolution through dialogue, while Republicans with the US House Committee on Armed Services sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to reconsider his North Korea policy. Observers are now saying this heralds an inevitable change in the administration’s course in its second term in office.
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