The latest crisis on the Korean peninsula appears headed for resolution. A spokesman for the South Korean government says details of a settlement will be released at 2 am (local time), after more than two days of marathon talks with the DPRK.
According to the semi-official Yonhap News Agency, the Seoul government has agreed to halt recently-resumed propaganda broadcasts along the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas. In return, Pyongyang expressed regret for “recent provocations,” and promises there won’t be any more “abnormal situations” in the future.
With that outline, it’s time for a quick “hotwash.” For those who never served in the military, the term refers to an immediate, after-action discussion of an organization’s performance during a recently-concluded exercise, training session or real-world event. Nation-states can also be evaluated through the hotwash process and after a weekend of brinkmanship and escalating tensions, a review how the crisis unfolded–and how it was managed–is clearly in order. From our vantage point, here are the major takeaways from the latest standoff between North and South Korea:
1. Kim Jong un Played a Relatively Weak Hand–and Won a Propaganda Victory. The North Korean dictator set events in motion by targeting a ROK patrol in the DMZ with landmines, maiming two South Korean soldiers. In response, the ROK government re-opened an old phase in the always-important propaganda war, resuming high-volume broadcasts over speakers aimed across the DMZ. The ROK loudspeakers had been silent for more than a decade, and Kim Jong un wasn’t about to lose face–and potential defections–by letting them resume.
So, he resorted to the DPRK’s favored tactic, rattling the sabre and hinting of renewed conflict with South Korea and its allies–a conflagration that could kill thousands of soldiers and civilians. Then, he ratcheted up tensions by firing a single artillery shell into ROK territory. South Korea units responded with a barrage of 36 shells, which prompted counter-moves by Pyongyang. Most of their submarine fleet went to sea, and their were limited deployments of large hovercraft at points along the Yellow Sea coast. That raised fears that North Korea might be planning large-scale attacks by special forces in ROK territory. About that same time, officials from both countries began meeting at Panmunjom, launching the marathon talks that produced today’s agreement.
Kim Jong un’s hand was “weak” in the sense that his military options were limited. At this time of year, most North Korean military personnel are engaged in the fields raising food, to fend off starvation in the winter. Consequently, DPRK readiness levels are typically at their lowest in the late summer, particularly among ground and air units. The threat of an all-out invasion (or even a major incursion across the DMZ) was very, very low.
So, Pyongyang used its Navy–the branch that maintains higher readiness levels in the spring and summer–to reinforce the bluster. Never mind that the subs are old and noisy, or that the hovercraft can be easily targeted by air or with anti-ship missiles. The hint of a large-scale, seaborne SOF attack was (apparently) enough to get Seoul to turn off the loudspeakers, in exchange for vague North Korean promises that will never be kept.
2. South Korea is Responding More Forcefully to NK Provocations (at Least Initially). After North Korea sank a ROK Navy corvette in 2010–and shelled a South Korean-controlled island a few months later, the Seoul government vowed to “get tough” over future provocations. And sure enough, when that North Korean artillery round whistled south last week, ROK commanders responded much more aggressively than in the past. One report indicated that South Korean artillery batterys “walked” their barrage to within a few yards of a DPRK command post, delivering a clear message about where the next rounds would land. The ROK Army also moved Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) units to their initial firing positions along the DMZ and the ROKAF recalled six F-16s from drills in Alaska.
U.S. forces, part of the Korea-based 2nd Infantry Division, were also on the move, with MLRS batterys observed out of garrison, along with other assets. Military sources also indicated that our fighter wings at Osan AB and Kunsan AB were placed on heightened alert, in preparation for the next deployment or attack by DPRK forces.
As to what our move might have been, no one is saying–at least yet. True, there are volumes of plans covering contingencies on Korean peninsula, but there are literally scores of options for any situation. Additionally, it is worth remembering that the four-star Army general who leads U.S. forces in Korea is also responsible for the overall defense of the peninsula, giving us tremendous leverage in determining the military course of action. The existing command relationship remains a sore point in relations with the ROK; at one point, Seoul hoped to assume command of all defensive forces this year, but that plan was postponed in 2014 by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his ROK counterpart.
On a related note, it will be interesting to watch the narrative that emerges in the weeks ahead, and learn how much pressure the Obama Administration applied on the government of President Park Geun-hye to tone down the rhetoric and reach a diplomatic solution. Mr. Obama seems to go out of his way to avoid antagonizing our enemies, while leaning on our friends. Following that model, it would be very characteristic of the White House to push President Park to the bargaining table.
It is also very telling that the U.S. did not announce plans for any military deployments to the region, in support of South Korea and Japan. To be fair, the situation unfolded and ended very quickly, but historically, any threat to the peninsula has been accompanied by American military deployments, or at least the promise of reinforcements. Obviously, South Korea’s modern armed forces are less dependent on U.S. back-up than they once were, but don’t think the “lack of military support” hasn’t gone unnoticed in Seoul and Tokyo.
Likewise, it is equally unclear what role (if any) China played in persuading Pyongyang to reach a settlement. However, Beijing has been consistently unhelpful in the past, and with Chinese leaders preoccupied with the on-going economic crisis, their ability to help with the Korean standoff may have been limited.
3. Timing, Assets and Leadership are Everything. It’s no accident that Pyongyang picked late summer for its latest provocation. Late last year, the U.S. announced plans to station the USS Ronald Reagan in Japan, replacing the USS George Washington as our only forward-deployed aircraft carrier. With the Navy already stretched thin by budget cuts and on-going combat operations in the Middle East, the swap-out became a complex operation, with a portion of the Washington’s crew transferring to the Reagan during a stopover in San Diego. The Pentagon admitted that the transfer would leave the U.S. without a carrier in the Western Pacific for at least four months, beginning in the late spring/early summer. And sure enough, North Korea carefully orchestrated its latest “move” during the carrier gap, when the Reagan, the Washington, and most of their escorts are in California.
The Japanese expressed strong reservations about the transfer plan, predicting that China or North Korea would take advantage of the opportunity to launch some sort of military adventure. And sure enough, the folks at the MOD in Tokyo were proven correct, although it didn’t take much analytical to make such a prediction. Our adversaries abroad have long since taken measure of the Obama Administration, and they are more than willing to exploit any perceived weakness or opening.
Meanwhile, our allies will take a hard look at increasing their own military power. Over the past year, there has been serious discussion in Japan about building new aircraft carriers, or converting amphibious ships to accommodate F-35 attack aircraft. Umm…did someone say new arms race in northeast Asia? China has already converted a former Soviet carrier into a training vessel (Liaoning) that will allow sailors and aircrews to practice carrier operations. Beijing could have at least three fleet carriers operational before 2030, and neither Japan or South Korea will allow their rival to have such a military advantage.
And, if U.S. leadership in the region continues to ebb, China, Japan and South Korea may explore an even wider range of military hardware, including the possibility of Seoul and Tokyo joining the nuclear club. To be fair, recent defense cuts and the current ops temp gave the U.S. few good options in swapping out the Reagan for the Washington. But the “carrier gap” was hardly a shining moment for the U.S., diplomatically or militarily; the consequences of that decision will reverberate for years to come.
4. Bottom Line: Avoiding war on the Korean peninsula is a diplomatic achievement, and worthy of commendation. But it’s also worth remembering that the latest crises was rooted (in part) in our own policies and military choices. Moving forward from this latest stand-off, it’s a sure bet that South Korea will push even harder for full control of their defenses–can you blame them?–and business will be very good for defense contractors in the region for many years to come.
One more thing: the handling of this latest standoff did nothing to deter the aims and ambitions of Kim Jong un. In his mind, North Korea won an important victory, forcing South Korea to suspend propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ, while giving up almost nothing in return. He also gained a better understanding of the current relationship between the U.S., South Korea and Japan, and (most likely) saw opportunities to create more mischief and further strain the alliance.
Next time, he will be playing for much higher stakes.