Ready for Peace or War: Can Escalation on the Korean Peninsula Be Halted?

11.12.2017

Word has it in Pyongyang that “North Korean soldiers have long been sleeping with their boots on.” Diplomats at the North Korean Foreign Ministry were interested in our assessments of the probability of hostilities breaking out. When we told them that several prominent US experts put the probability of a military strike at 50 percent, their faces became sterner but they replied calmly: “We are ready for peace or war.” Of course, Pyongyang is extremely serious about this scenario and is not bluffing when it says that “only one question remains: when will war break out?” and that “North Korea does not want war but will not hide from it, either.” 

Contrary to persistent calls from Russia and China (a joint statement by the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries of July 4, 2017) for an immediate and substantial reduction of military activity on both sides (North Korea – the United States and its allies) and the early resumption of talks as the only way of stopping the Korean Peninsula from inevitably sliding to the edge of war, unfortunately, the situation continues to develop in the opposite direction. 

Firmly set on its goal, i.e., achieving nuclear parity with the United States, on December 4, 2016, North Korea again launched (evidently not the for last time) a Hwasong-15 long-range missile, touted as the most advanced and sophisticated technical product of its kind. 

The United States is not just expanding the scale of regular and irregular military exercises along North Korea’s perimeter but also introducing fundamentally new personnel-training elements designed to achieve specific practical goals. Military experts justly note that the geographical features of the Korean Peninsula provide no opportunity for the gradual, methodical buildup of troops to create a superior strike force, as was the case, for instance, before attacking Iraq. North Korea would immediately notice such actions and naturally regard them as a casus belli. 

So the Pentagon has to rehearse elements of a coordinated military operation one step at a time. The three aircraft carrier strike groups that recently practiced coordination in Korea’s East Sea, as well as many other operations, were not just a demonstration of military power. 

The latest US-South Korean air exercise called Vigilant Ace with a total of 230 aircraft also attracted attention, not least because it involved an inordinate number of varied types of stealth aircraft. 

Let’s not forget that over the past several months, the task of physically eliminating the North Korean leader with the first strike has been part of all types of US-South Korean exercise scenarios: ground, naval, air, special ops, etc. 

These and many other new elements that have appeared in the course of the drills that have been ongoing over the past several months and weeks give even us civilian analysts a sense that practical elements of attack against North Korea are being methodically rehearsed and that at zero hour (and there is reason to suspect that it’s not too far away) they will be put to the test on North Korean soil all at the same time. 

It seems that with the new gung-ho president in office, the price involved – i.e., unacceptable losses, primarily among US military personnel in case of a large-scale military conflict – that has until recently been considered the main deterrence factor for Washington, is now being upwardly revised, if it has not already been, in keeping with the “America First” principle. As for the US allies, let them deal with their own problems amid the millions killed and ruins. 

The same goes for countries neighboring the Korean Peninsula that in the current prewar situation, naturally, will not sit on their hands. It was no accident that on December 1, Russian Security Council Chairman Nikolai Patrushev told a Russian news agency that Russia was assessing the consequences of the possible use of military force to resolve the North Korean problem and was making preparations for that even though it believed in a political-diplomatic solution. “We are calculating this and making preparations. It will not come as a surprise to us,” Patrushev said. 

I returned from Pyongyang a week ago, where I had frank conversations at the North Korean Foreign Ministry. Senior diplomatic officials were interested in our assessments of the probability of hostilities breaking out. When we told them that several prominent US experts put the probability of a military strike at 50 percent, their faces became sterner but they calmly replied: “We are ready for peace or war.” Of course, Pyongyang is extremely serious about this scenario and is not bluffing when it says that “only one question remains: when will war break out?” and that “North Korea does not want war but will not hide from it, either.” 

A sense that reconnaissance in force has already begun is hovering over the Korean Peninsula. We were told in Pyongyang that “North Korean soldiers have long been sleeping with their boots on.” 

What is surprising (and certainly not reassuring) in this situation is the prevailing psychology in Washington: No matter what, Pyongyang must not be allowed to create a missile capable of reaching the US mainland. This has effectively become an article of religious faith that is crucial to the fate of America – whether it will exist or not. 

Amazingly, for some reason the political establishment of the great power is clearly unwilling to ask a very simple question. Even if North Korea does develop this technological capability, why necessarily would it be launched toward the United States? Maybe it is being developed for the sole purpose of never having to take off. And maybe in the course of dialogue, it is entirely possible to clarify the opponent’s real intentions and reach a consensus. The world has successfully resolved such problems more than once. However, to this end, one needs courage to enter into dialogue with North Korea that the United States has demonized so hard and for so long. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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