SEOUL – Life continued as normal in central Seoul today (November 3), but in the corridors of power and in command bunkers across this flashpoint peninsula, nerves are being tested as rarely before.
South Korea said today that massed aerial drills taking place this week with US aircraft – the first such exercises in five years – are to be extended. North Korea, meanwhile, is continuing its barrage of projectile launches, which have made 2022 its most active year ever for missile tests.
Red lines are being crossed at supersonic speeds.
This morning, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. One missile on course to fly through space over Japan – presumed by South Korea to be an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)– disappeared from radars, possibly as the result of a crash, Japanese media reported.
Yesterday, Pyongyang test-launched 25 ballistic and surface-to-air missiles from 13 separate bases off both its east and west coasts. Among them, one North Korean projectile – possibly errant – veered southward, crossing the inter-Korean maritime frontier and setting off alarms in northeastern South Korea.
It was the first time since the Korean War such an incident had occurred. South Korea responded with air-to-surface missile tests.
This is all taking place in the aftermath of a massive nuclear doctrinal shift in Pyongyang that gravely concerns military pundits. In September, North Korea activated a Soviet-style “dead-hand” nuclear system, under which subordinate units would “automatically” launch if their leadership was killed or incommunicado.
“Holy god, it’s a nightmare,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general told Asia Times. “Now it is not just one guy, but two – or 20 – that have their fingers on the missile triggers.”
In this heated situation, ex-general Chun is not the only old hand biting his nails.
“This is very, very dangerous,” a South Korean expert who has advised previous Seoul administrations on North Korea told Asia Times. “Wars can take place by accident, rather than by design or plan. I am worried.”
Adding to concerns: Pyongyang is focused but leaders in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are all distracted by domestic political issues. And with widespread expectations of an imminent nuclear test by Pyongyang, no de-escalation pathway is apparent.
Amid these seismic jitters, a remarkable – albeit, underreported – piece of news offers a faint ray of hope.
A US official last week raised the possibility of arms reduction talks with North Korea. If Washington removes denuclearization – which experts insist is an impossibility – from its agenda, realistic negotiations with Pyongyang could, at last, get underway.
War drills or war preparations?
Experts are divided over whether or not Kim sees a real threat from US-South Korea military exercises, or if he merely leverages them to unite the nation against external enemies.
Regardless, the drills this year are the most active since 2017. In 2018, Kim’s diplomatic dalliance with Seoul and Washington compelled both capitals to draw-down drills, a trend that continued during the Covid pandemic.
This year, with the conservative administration of Yoon Suk-yeol taking power from the progressive government of Moon Jae-in in Seoul in May, the drills are back on with a vengeance.
In recent days, South Korean TV news has featured dramatic film of massed formations of jet fighters zooming through Korean skies. The footage is of “Vigilant Storm,” a joint air exercise featuring 240 aircraft, including F35 stealth jets operated by both nations, as well as Australian refueling aircraft.
The air units are running 1,600 sorties of “close air support, defensive counter air, and emergency air operations 24 hours a day during the training period,” the Korea-based US 7th Air Force said on its website.
The drills, scheduled to run five days from Monday, are now to be extended, it was announced today, in what is almost certainly a response to the North’s launches.
Kim’s small, fuel-starved air force cannot compete with this but his missiles have heft. 2022 has been North Korea’s most active year, ever, for missile tests that were well underway before joint South Korea-US exercises started this spring.
Even so, Kim is now “mechanically reacting” to ongoing exercises, the expert who advised previous Seoul governments told Asia Times.
Pyongyang media alleged this week that the flight drills are named after “Desert Storm” – the operation that ended Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. And yesterday, North Korea issued a thunderous warning.
Making a reference to “current circumstances,” the Korean Central News Agency said, “Should the US and South Korea attempt to use force against us…[North Korea’s] military’s special forces will immediately carry out the strategic mission they have been given, and the US and South Korea will face a terrifying event and pay a terrible price.”
Are the South Korean-US war games a legitimate threat? Given that Russia used winter exercises as cover to amass the force that invaded Ukraine in February – and given Pyongyang’s familiarity with Russian doctrine – those concerns look valid.
And one pundit reached further back into history to support the regime’s view.
“I believe the North Koreans have learnt strategic doctrines from World War I,” the expert said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, alleging that pressure is being quietly applied by Seoul against those who offer critical analyses.
Citing the German Army’s exercises before conducting the “Schlieffen Plan” – the German offensive through Belgium upon France – he said: “North Koreans have learnt from European experiences and accept that training can be used to invade North Korea.”
Chun, the former general, differed over the drills’ threat to Pyongyang. “Absolutely not!” he said. “These are declared, defensive routine exercises.”
Still, Chun criticized one aspect of the current drills.
“This administration is doing what should be done for military readiness, but at the same time, is publishing them a bit too much and exaggerating routine exercises,” he said. “I think this has the unintended effect of antagonizing the North Koreans. This is tit for tat and the North Koreans are not afraid to up the scale.”
Chun also slammed the inflammatory rhetoric being aired in South Korean media. Some commentators have argued that the North Korean missile that crossed to the south yesterday was a failed attempt to strike the South Korean coastal city of Sokcho.
Kim’s ‘dead hand’
Internally, Kim has multiple reasons to conduct tests.
The first concerns military engineering. He has to physically test his constantly expanding and modernizing arsenal of missile technologies to ensure that they work. Technicians need to assess range and guidance capabilities.
The second is the need to make a show of force. To deter his enemies, Kim needs to display credible assets that could, feasibly, rain hellfire upon South Korea, Japan, US bases in the region and the US mainland itself.
The third reason is political. Kim’s public – the poorest in Northeast Asia – is suffering their third year of tightly closed borders, which have cut trade with China, the source of many of the goods traded in North Korean markets. A military defiance against external threats distracts from internal woes, providing a basis for Kim’s rule and solidifying national unity.
A new motivation has been added this year. In September, Pyongyang announced a new doctrine under which unit commanders will independently fire nuclear weapons at enemy targets if Kim himself, or his command net, is disabled. This means new procedures, systems and communications must be stress tested.
So-called “dead hand” capability was developed by the former USSR and inherited by Russia. Though shadowy, its code name, “Operation Perimeter,” is known. An automated system, it guaranteed a retaliatory nuclear strike if Moscow’s command was decapitated.
Given the extreme nature of the North Korean state – where power is ultra-centralized around Kim – some wonder whether Pyongyang is truly willing to delegate powers down the command chain.
“I have big questions,” Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, said. “The word they used when they released that doctrine was an ‘automatic system’ should KJU [Kim Jong Un] lose control of his nuke system.”
Experts ponder whether the North Korean system could be AI-based. O’Carroll, for one, is skeptical.
“To me, that would suggest a risk of things going wrong so I don’t believe it is truly automatic,” he told Asia Times. “It must be a multi-human, layered decision-making process, I would imagine.”
Chun is more concerned. “If more than one person has the ability, but maybe not the authority, that is a nightmare,” he said. “No responsible country does that.”
O’Carroll warns that if North Korea came under attack, it would not hesitate to escalate at apocalyptic speed.
“I don’t doubt that they would go full pelt if push came to shove – if nukes were used, or if their leader was assassinated,” he said. “We would see loads of missiles going off and some would have nuclear warheads.”
Yesterday’s multiplicity of rockets, launched from 13 different sites, would – if fired for real – present huge challenges to Seoul’s early-warning net.
Politically, the escalation advantage lies with North Korea.
Kim may lack the mighty resources of those nations arrayed against him, but is highly risk-tolerant. He is also a master of his own destiny, untrammeled by any of the alliance coordination or domestic political issues troubling his opposite numbers in Seoul, Tokyo or Washington.
South Korean President Yoon is being forced to crisis-manage the aftermath of the October 29 Halloween tragedy in which 156 young revelers died in a Seoul crowd crush, which many angry voices insist was preventable.
Japanese Premier Fumio Kishida is similarly distracted by the aftermath of Shinzo Abe’s assassination, which cast a harsh light on the ties between his party and the Unification Church, which many consider a cult.
And in Washington, the Joe Biden administration, neck deep in Ukraine, is glued to domestic politics as November 8 mid-term elections loom.
If – as pundits have been predicting for months – North Korea tests a nuclear device, potentially its seventh – tensions will rise yet further.
“It’s hard to see de-escalation,” O’Carroll said.
Hopes vs reality
Perhaps. But on October 28 a US official made a remarkable, if underpublicized, statement. Given that Seoul’s Halloween disaster followed the next day, her statement was drowned out in breaking news.
Speaking at the 2022 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, US Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins said Washington would not refuse talks with Kim if he asked for arms reduction negotiations.
If that view is held by the Biden administration – which is not clear – it signals a significant change.
Unwavering US prioritization of North Korean denuclearization has long been a stumbling block in talks. Among the North Korean punditry, it is difficult to find anyone who believes Pyongyang will ever give up its nuclear “sacred sword.” Optimists believe that only if the US ditches denuclearization and pivots to arms control can progress be made.
But even if US thinking and policy are shifting, it is questionable whether either Pyongyang or Washington could enter related negotiations in good faith.
“North Korea pushes arms control talks, as they would acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state,” said Go Myong-hyun, a fellow at the Asan Institute think tank in Seoul. “The problem is, this approach would eliminate the US as an external enemy – and a pillar of the regime’s justification for its existence is enmity against the US.”
Across the Pacific, not only would ditching denuclearization be a tough sell to the general public, a law exists that may make it politically impossible.
“We have a history of the US and North Korea trying out different negotiating tracks, but there are political constraints in the US that are registered in law,” Go said, citing the 2016 North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act.
Before sanctions are lifted, the Act demands that North Korea show progress in areas including dismantling its WMD and releasing political prisoners – demands it is highly unlikely the regime would countenance.
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