March 26, 2011 marked the first anniversary of South Korea’s worst peace-time naval disaster, when its 1,200-ton naval patrol ship, Cheonan, was allegedly sunk by a North Korean submarine. The tragedy occurred south of the Yellow Sea border of South Korea and North Korea, killing 46 of the ship’s 104 sailors. South Korea is yet to overcome this nightmarish experience. Though an international investigation team concluded two months later that North Korea deliberately torpedoed the ship, Pyongyang continues to reject the findings. Ever since, South Korea has been strengthening its combat preparedness to face any unconventional or asymmetrical attacks from the North. South Korea’s suspicions were further strengthened after North Korea fired artillery shells on Yeonpyeong Island, 12 kilometres off the North’s coast in the Yellow Sea, in November 2010.
In response to increasing North Korean hostilities, South Korea’s Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin unveiled a 73-point military reform measures in early March 2011. The measures called “for an early introduction of spy drones and stealth fighters, drastically strengthening fire power and making the command structure of the 650,000-member [armed forces] slimmer but more efficient.” South Korea also intends to purchase high-altitude spy drones and stealth fighter jets and deploy them earlier than the initial deployment year of 2015. According to Kim, this is intended to strengthen deterrence against North Korea. In a belligerent response to Pyongyang’s aggressive posture, while inspecting soldiers at a front-line unit defending the Yellow Sea islands, Kim issued an order: “Don’t ask whether to shoot or not. Shoot first and report later.”
The UN sanctions and verbal condemnations have not deterred the North’s unruly regime from further provoking Seoul. The two bold military attacks of 2010 only contributed to straining the relations between the two countries. Analysts have suggested that the two attacks were linked to the North Korean military’s attempt to establish the credentials of Kim Jong-un, the younger son of Kim Jong Il and his heir. It is feared that Pyongyang could launch other forms of aggression in the coming months with a view (a) to accord legitimacy to the junior Kim by strengthening his hand, and (b) to demand the resumption of the stalled aid-for-nuclear disarmament talks.
According to senior analyst Baek Seung-joo of the state-run Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, North Korea has two control towers, handled by the senior and junior Kims, with both pursuing policies that show signs of a split between the hawks and the doves. According to Baek, Pyongyang is likely to continue both military aggression and the dialogue offensive as tactics aimed at building up credentials for the junior Kim. Therefore, in order to achieve its goals, the military regime is likely to continue provocation in the coming months.
Some analysts in South Korea opine that as Seoul did not pursue retributive military action against the North, despite provocations in 2010, it might make Pyongyang bolder. According to Jane’s Information Group military analyst Joseph Bermudez, South Korea pushed the red line back by not retaliating appropriately to Pyongyang’s actions of March and November 2010, despite Defence Minister Kim’s warning of a harsh response.
Probably, Seoul realises the futility of crossing the escalatory threshold as consequences will be perilous. This does not suggest that Seoul is not prepared to face a repeat of the experiences of 2010. It has been adjusting its military posture since late 2010 that would permit a robust response to future North Korean attacks. South Korea has also “announced an arms buildup on its islands and has carried out a series of independent and military maneuvers with the United States intended to deter the North from launching new assaults.”
South Korea has demanded an apology from the North for sinking the Cheonan as a condition for initiating any new inter-Korean engagement. Backed by the US, it has said that it would not call for a return to the long-stalled six-party talks aimed at North Korean denuclearization, until relations improved. It may be recalled that the six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia have been at a standstill since the North walked out in April 2009 and staged its second nuclear test a month later. Since Pyongyang does not see any hope of an early diplomatic breakthrough, analysts see a strong possibility that it could conduct its third nuclear test soon.
When South Korea staged a series of military drills to mark the anniversary of the Cheonan incident in early March 2011, Pyongyang threatened that “war may break out anytime”. Under the present situation, a small spark may develop into a major conflagration and, when that happens, international politics would get more complicated.
However, China’s refusal to rebuke its long-time ally for its attack on the Cheonan surprised all stakeholders in the Northeast Asian region. According to one-time US representative to the six-party talks, Christopher Hill, “every reasonable person in the world knows actually what happened”. A UN Security Council Presidential statement issued on July 9, 2010 acknowledged the investigation’s findings, but did not single out North Korea for blame. Council veto-holder China played its part and no stinging rebuke was issued against North Korea. Welcoming the restraint shown by South Korea, the Council underscored the importance of preventing further such attacks or other hostilities against that country or in the region, called for full adherence to the Korean Armistice Agreement and encouraged the settlement of outstanding issues through a resumption of dialogue.
South Korea is doing what is best possible under the circumstances – strengthening its preparedness in the event of a future attack from the North. It is slated to hold joint deterrence talks with the US in Hawaii. This would include “making arrangements for a tabletop exercise that would use computer-generated scenarios to analyze the potential responses to a North Korean nuclear or other WMD threat.” The exercise could facilitate a consultation between the two sides over possible countermeasures, in case there is an urgent need to deter North Korea’s nuclear threats. South Korea has a security alliance with the US and the latter has a treaty obligation to defend the South in the event of threat from external sources. In light of this and North Korea’s unpredictable and belligerent posture, the Extended Deterrence Policy Committee established by the US is expected to examine avenues for strengthening the nuclear umbrella that the US has provided to South Korea. This Committee was set up in December 2010 after both the US and South Korea agreed to step up their commitment to deter North Korea amid high tensions generated by the two incidents of 2010.
The term “extended deterrence” is a political jargon, which refers to a pledge by a nuclear power to defend an ally armed with no atomic weapons. The “Table-Top Exercise” on deterrence measures would be held at a level lower than a command-post computerised exercise in terms of scale. By providing extended deterrence, including a nuclear umbrella and a defence system with ballistic missiles, the US reserves the right to bring in its full military might in responding to threats that North Korea might pose to the South.