On 30 March, North Korea even announced that “inter-Korean relations are in a state of war” and later claimed that it would restart its suspended nuclear enrichment facility at Yongbyon. Many commentators have also speculated that North Korea would launch a ballistic missile or carry out a fourth nuclear test.
But North Korea’s belligerent statements should be seen as a result and not a cause. Those to blame for the recent stand off are the world’s biggest military power, the US and its junior partner South Korea, a country whose defence spending is larger than North Korea’s entire GDP.
Behind North Korea’s aggressive announcements lies an increased level of threat from the US. For one thing, the annual joint US-South Korea military exercises that take place in March and April (“Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle”) were ramped up this year. During the last two months the Korean peninsula effectively became a stage for the US to show off its most advanced weaponry. During the war games the US mobilised its nuclear submarines, nuclear-equipped B-52 bombers and B-2 Stealth bombers as well as F-22 warplanes to demonstrate how easily it can reduce North Korea to rubble.
It is also likely that the US embarked on this show of force in north east Asia in order to show its willingness to expand its nuclear umbrella and thereby suppress the emerging discussion among South Korean or Japanese politicians concerning the building of independent nuclear deterrents. Most importantly, it probably wanted to make clear to China, its potential competitor in the region, its hegemonic power. But far from yielding, the North Korean response was characteristically hostile.
The US has also pushed for the deployment of its missile defence system in East Asia, using North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and missiles as justification. In the recent crisis the US relocated its Sea-Based X-Band Radar Platform, an important part of the missile defense system, closer to the Korean peninsula. It also plans to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) to a base in Guam.
According to a recent news report, in 2010 North Korea proposed to hand over the nuclear fuel rods in its Yongbyon nuclear facility to the US in exchange for economic assistance. But the US firmly refused.
America has also increased its military force in the Korean peninsula and East Asia. In 2009-2011, the number of US troops in South Korea increased to 37,000 from 26,000. The number of US troops in Japan increased to 87,000 from 41,000. In addition, weapons like the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and Apache helicopters used in Iraq and Afghanistan were redeployed to South Korea.
In South Korea the recently elected conservative government of Park Geun-hye has also aided the US in increasing tensions. Geun-hye has made it clear that if a conflict arises with North Korea she will “respond with strong force from the start without any political consideration”.
On 26 March the Wall Street Journal reported that US officials, eager to maintain a united front of allies, encouraged Japan and South Korea to mend their fractious relationship, citing the need for unity in the face of the “North Korean threat”. The possibility of the US demanding South Korea and Japan sign a military agreement in order to maintain the tripartite alliance has increased.
This will undoubtedly upset China. The Chinese government has been protesting against the US’s attempt to speed up the deployment of its missile defence systems in Europe and East Asia. China is also about to succeed in developing its own Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that will incapacitate the US missile defence system.
This is part of America’s attempt to encircle China. But these moves are also a grave threat to North Korea. As result, it is likely that North Korea’s rulers will continue to pursue their development of nuclear weapons and missile systems.
East Asia is becoming a key site for imperial competition, with the Korean peninsula at the centre. While the possibility of an actual war between North Korea and the US-South Korea alliance is almost zero, the fact that there have previously been numerous minor military confrontations on the Korean peninsula as a result of deteriorating US-North Korea relations is worrying.
If the fierce competition between imperial powers continues to escalate in East Asia, then it is possible that disaster could strike the Korean peninsula.