x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

North Korea: don't play games with us

Tension rises as Seoul feels the need to save face by operating military manoeuvres while Pyongyang vows 'physical retaliation'.

South Korean salvage boats entering the sea in March during a search operation for the Cheonan, sunk by the North Koreans.
South Korean salvage boats entering the sea in March during a search operation for the Cheonan, sunk by the North Koreans.

BEIJING // South Korea plans to begin massive war games today near the tense maritime border with North Korea where its naval vessel, the Cheonan, was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. The manoeuvres are meant to deter its northern rival from any more aggressive acts. Pyongyang vowed "physical retaliation" against South Korea's military. The South vowed to strike back if the North opened fire during the drills.

Analysts say Seoul needs to display strong resolve against the North in the aftermath of the Cheonan attack in which 46 sailors died. However, they also are concerned about what is increasingly becoming a game of chicken that might get out of hand. After the massive joint naval drills last month in the eastern part of the Korean Peninsula with the US, South Korea begins a fresh round of its own war games near the North Korean border.

South Korea is staging this new manoeuvre "because the US did not go far enough with the joint naval exercises last month," said Gordon Chang, the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. South Korea initially had wanted to hold that exercise in the Yellow Sea, but China objected. The US-South Korea joint drills were then moved. "Beijing intimidated Washington with its warnings to stay out of the Yellow Sea. That, predictably, left Seoul steaming mad, at least in private," Mr Chang said.

South Korea's defence ministry said the exercise would involve three submarines, a destroyer, 30 other vessels and 50 aircraft. Some 4,500 troops will be deployed and marines will conduct live-fire exercises. "The drills will be conducted just like they were real," a South Korean military official told Seoul's Yonhap news agency . North Korea's online news site, Uriminzokkiri.com, warned against the South's move.

The South's Navy Rear Admiral Kim Kyung-sik countered the North by saying that if North Korea makes good on its threat to open fire, South Korea "will stage an immediate counter-attack". Kim Heung-kyu, an analyst at a state-run think tank in Seoul, said South Korea should be wary. "North Korea has been making efforts to display to the international community that it doesn't make empty threats," he said.

Analysts see the rationale of South Korea's current move. "After all, it was an attack on a South Korean warship. So, some measures are necessary," said Andrei Lankov, an analyst who teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. Mr Kim said North Korea's strategists likely believe that elevated tension benefits the regime. "Raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula will pit the US and China, the two powerful stakeholders in the region, against each other," he said.

South Korea's liberal media outlets speculated that the US and South Korea's harsh stance against the North may be an "all-around" pressure tactic to provoke the collapse of North Korea. "The North Korean situation is very dire now," said Zhao Huji, a political scientist at the Central Party School in Beijing. Mr Zhao said North Korea is under tremendous difficulty. "It's true that there are dissenting voices at the senior cadre level in North Korea since the failure of the botched currency reforms last year," he said. "But adding too much pressure on the whole North Korea at this time without a breather is not going to work. The North leadership will use the outside pressure to consolidate its internal unity."

Analysts also see what was originally a conflict between the two Koreas as a power game between the US and China. Beijing sees the military drills Washington carried out with South Korea near China's waters as a convenient ploy for the US to reclaim its power in the region. China on Tuesday began a five-day live-fire exercise in the coastal provinces near the Yellow Sea. Zhao Zongqi, the commander of the drill, told the official China Daily that the exercise is "to make effective preparations for military combat".

US State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley said: "We don't want to see an expansion of tension. We don't want to see a war of words. We don't want to see any further provocative steps." China's state media said North Korea might use the games as an excuse to carry out more nuclear testing. sleethenational@gmail.com