What N. Korea’s peace proposal means

A train runs on the rail track, which the two Koreas hope to reconnect as part of an agreement reached in 2000, in the fog at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, South Korea, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014. North Korea on Friday agreed to resume reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures from a country that was threatening South Korea and the U.S. with nuclear war almost a year ago.(AP/NEWSis)

Spring is arguably the most beautiful season in Korea, time of mild warm weather, and mountains covered with beautiful flowers. The spring of 2013, though, was not hat tranquil: it was marked by a sudden and dramatic increase in inter-Korean tensions.
 
Unfortunately, there are some indications that the coming spring of 2014 will also be marked not only by beautiful cherry blossoms, but also by exchanges of verbal threats and perhaps even an exchange of fire between the two Korean states. While tensions are likely to be initiated by the North, it appears that if such tensions escalate it may be the South who is at the center of such an unfortunate turn of events.

The first signs of such coming trouble have appeared. In mid-January, the North Korean side approached their Southern counterparts with a proposal. The National Defense Commission, the highest executive organ of the North Korean state, suggested that in order to improve inter-Korean relations the North and South should halt all hostile propaganda and abandon large-scale military activities from January 30th (the lunar new year) onwards.

While such suggestions appear conciliatory, such an offer is clearly unacceptable for the South Korean side (as Seoul soon made clear). It is widely known that joint South Korean-US exercises are scheduled for February. Such exercises are held around this time every year and they are the major military maneuvers jointly undertaken by US and South Korean forces.

Given the fact that these are a regular annual event that take months to prepare, it is virtually unthinkable that the South Korean side would ever seriously continence their cancelation. Such a cancelation would be tantamount to the South’s unilateral withdrawal from the US-ROK alliance – an act that will be popular in Pyongyang, but will not be liked by Seoul’s security establishment or broader public.

While making this proposal, the North Korean side said that if accepted it will pave the road to a dramatic improvement in North-South relations. At the same time however, it also warned that the current state of affairs might lead to a ‘nuclear calamity’ on the Korean peninsula. While technically correct – a ‘nuclear calamity’ in Korea is indeed possible, albeit not all that likely – in this particular context, this remark sounds suspiciously like a thinly veiled threat (and indeed this is how it has been interpreted by South Korean analysts).

Predictably, after brief deliberations, the South Korean side rejected the proposal. Currently it is difficult to guess what goals diplomats in Pyongyang have. One can conceive of a situation in which such proposals are eventually leading to improvements in North-South relations, on conditions more favorable to Pyongyang. At the same time, it seems more likely that the North has begun a preemptive diplomatic blame game designed to free them from responsibly for what may be coming next: another round of Pyongyang’s favorite tension building.

Last year, we saw how the North Koreans used the same regular US-ROK military exercises as a pretext to rack up tensions on the Korean peninsula. In 2013 the North Korean TV audience was treated to the sight of their leader standing in front of a large map clearly marked as a plan to deliver a nuclear strike on the continental US (the doomed cities, apart from the usual suspects of Washington DC and New York, included Austin, Texas for reasons unknown).

Foreigners were urged to leave South Korea immediately, since the South was soon to become a ‘target’ of North Korean revenge. Some foreign embassies in Pyongyang were also asked to evacuate. Such tension building exercises have been a tool of North Korean diplomats for decades, but 2013 Pyongyang went to hitherto unprecedented extremes. Admittedly, much of this tension building was purely verbal – no shooting or other violence occurred – but many in the international media took this show very seriously and even discussed the allegedly high possibility of another war in Korea.

Recent North Korean actions might be interpreted as the first step toward the repetition of last year’s sabre-rattling and chest-beating exercise. Indeed, South Korea’s decision to reject the seemingly well meaning proposal of Pyongyang can be presented to the North Korean public, as well as the parts of the world’s public, as proof of Seoul’s subordination to Washington and Seoul’s maliciousness. This will give the North Koreans an opportunity to undertake another round of tension building measures, while putting all the blame on the South Korean side – the latter’s alleged belligerence so clearly demonstrated.

It is not clear whether during this next round of tension building (assuming that such a round is to take place soon) the North Koreans will use only verbal threats. Last year, they did not resort to military provocations, but this year things might be different. The North Korean government might order some shooting, or other violent actions on the border, as a means by which to demonstrate its toughness and readiness to use all possible means to safeguard their country’s ‘security.’

This is exactly where South Korea might play a highly negative role, bringing about an escalation in a possible military confrontation.

In the past decades, the South Korean military has been subjected to a number of attacks from the North, large and small, planned and seemingly spontaneous. As a rule, such attacks have been ignored by the South Korean military, whose reaction was very measured and often purely symbolic.

However, things may have changed of late. In the last few years, we have seen how high level South Korean military officials have stated that in the case of another armed North Korean provocation (similar to what happened on Yeonpyong island in 2010), they are not going to follow their decades-old way of reacting – i.e. by delivering a measured and restricted response. Instead, South Korea’s top brass has begun to ‘reassure’ us that they will answer a future North Korean attack with maximum force. They did not explicitly quote popular North Korean slogans of ‘repaying an enemy’s strike one thousand times’ but this is essentially what they mean.

The recently published memoirs of Robert Gates, the former US Secretary of Defence, confirm that this mood is indeed very common among South Korean military officers. When Yeonpyeong island was shelled in 2010, Gates and other US officials (including the president himself) had to work hard to persuade the South to not respond with a large counterstrike. Back then, US intercessions worked, but we cannot be sure whether it will again. Unfortunately, these are serious questions because it seems likely that North Korea will again engage in tension building activities over the next few months.

Supporters of the new hardline in Seoul often insist that such a position (made public a number of times) serves as a deterrent – preventing North Korean attacks. This might indeed be the case, but the same approach also increases the potential risks associated with an attack (should one occur).

When facing a sudden and disproportionately severe South Korean counterstrike, North Korea’s military is unlikely to hold its fire. It will certainly be seen as an overreaction in Pyongyang – if not an actual act of war. Pyongyang is likely to respond in kind with its own counter-counterstrike. This is the first step toward a dangerous escalation. One therefore wonders South Korea’s military decision makers have studied the successes of their predecessors well enough. So far, the interests of South Korea have been well served by restraint. Such restraint made peace on the Korean peninsula much easier to maintain – and at the end of the day it has been the South, not the North, that has benefited most from this peaceful environment.

So let us hope that talk of revenge will remain just talk.

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