Korean Sabre Rattling

It has probably escaped no-one that things are heating up along the 38th parallel in Korea. All began when earlier this month (04.08.2015) two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines placed by the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea (which certainly doesn’t warrant any of those titles, except ‘Korea’). Last Thursday (20.08) the DPRK fired artillery over the demilitarised zone, DMZ for short, aiming on propaganda loudspeakers set up by the Republic of (South) Korea, which promptly answered with a few salvos of 155 mm long range artillery. This evening (24.08) there seems to have been some sort of agreement reached, but the situation remains tense. This warrants a few observations.

North Korea is quite possibly the most militarised country on the planet. A large part of its equipment, including vehicles and weapons, are old bordering on antique. This includes fighter jets developed in the 50’s and apparently tanks that saw service in WWII (if rumours about T-34’s and Su-100’s still being active are correct). Still, while the main force would rely on numbers more than quality in any renewal of fighting, there are a couple of branches that may make things nasty for the South.

170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. This is an ex-Irani gun captured first by Iraq in the 80’s and later by US forces. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Albert F. Hunt, U.S. Marine Corps

The first is the North Korean artillery. The number of artillery pieces, calibres ranging from 3’’/76.2 mm up to 170 mm, are unknown, but is measured in thousands, possibly up to 10,000. Some of these are stationed in hardened shelters dug into the mountains along the DMZ, reportedly with pre-determined targets on the Southern side of the border, including Seoul in the case of the mighty (but slow-firing) 170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. Added to these are a few thousand (4-5,000?) multiple rocket launchers, as well as thousands of light, medium, and heavy mortars. The lethality of these are somewhat overrated, with graphic descriptions of Seoul being levelled by a wall of fire during the first hour of a possible conflict. In practice, only the heaviest systems, 200 mm rocket launchers and the 170 mm guns, have the range to reach Seoul, and due to their size they have a very long reload time. Also, the use of fixed positions makes them easy targets for the sizeable air force and artillery units operated by South Korea and the US forces on the peninsula, the main mission of the latter being counter-battery fire. However, the sheer number and protection of these gun emplacements mean that their destruction will take time, and while a Dresden-style complete destruction of Seoul is out of the question, they will still cause considerable damage during their short life spans.

Another much reported arm of the DPRK forces is the submarine fleet, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world. It is mainly made up of old Chinese copies of the obsolete Soviet Project 633 ‘Romeo’-class diesel-electric submarines, around 20 of which are currently in service. These are then backed up by a plethora of smaller vessels of the Sang-O/Sang-O II, Yugo, and Yono-classes, which are either used for insertion of Special Forces or for “traditional” ship-hunting missions. The latter was demonstrated when a Yono-class submarine fired a torpedo that sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan back in 2010, becoming only the third submarine to have sunk a surface vessel since the Second World War. The US Naval Institute claims that as many as 90 of these smaller vessels might be in service, but also notes that serviceability is poor and many vessels are in reserve. Yesterday (24.08.2015) South Korean sources reported that 50 submarines of unspecified classes have gone to sea in an unprecedented move, and that these make up 70% of the entire submarine force (i.e. the ROK places the number of active submarines at 71 compared to USNI’s ~110). In response, South Korea has stepped up its air patrols to try and locate the submarines.

Sang-O class submarine which ran aground while attempting to insert commands into South Korea in 1996. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Forces Korea

While the submarine force is severely outdated, the Romeo is largely based on a hull-design pioneered by the Germans during WWII in the form of their Type XXI coupled with early-Cold War Soviet technology, they should not be underestimated. Diesel-electric submarines are extremely quiet, and as such hard to detect. If the submarines are able to take up positions before a conflict erupts, as their sheer number means that it is impossible for South Koreas 16 anti-submarine aircraft to keep track of them all. Even many of the lighter submarines feature heavy 533 mm torpedo tubes, being able to load a number of different Chinese and indigenous torpedoes, including wake-homing and passive/active seekers, making them extremely deadly if they can lie silently in ambush and wait for a target to pass by, as was evident in the case of the sinking of the Cheonan.

All in all however, the South Korean armed forces should be able to make up for their smaller size by vastly more modern equipment and training. There are uncertainties, such as the morale of the conscripts serving long times in remote (and unpopular) locations, and the whole system of conscription has been questioned. Still, in a fight for the survival of the country, one would assume that morale would not be an issue.

The big problem with Korea is that it is next door to China. And that there are a considerable number of US troops in the country. As was evident in 1950, while China might not be overjoyed by the seemingly dicey behaviour of their neighbours in Pyongyang, they vastly prefer it to having an US ally on the border. In fact, the response during the Korean War was so strong, it was one of the very few instances since the Second World War in which an US force have been decisively beaten on the battlefield. Still today, it is hard to imagine Beijing letting Pyongyang fall, no matter their opinions of Kim Jong-un and his regime.

Obviously, there is also the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons. They don’t have many, but even a single warhead aimed at Seoul, or any other target on the peninsula for that matter, would in a stroke transform the conflict. Some have stated that the treat of the US nuclear arsenal and a retaliatory attack by Washington makes this option unlikely, but I am less than certain. To begin with, Obama has so far proved to be a leader that likes to err on the side of caution in matters of foreign policy. Also, whether there would be a popular opinion in the US supporting even a defensive nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is highly dubious, especially with the possibility of the Chinese being dragged into it with their nuclear arsenal.

It might however be that Washington has no choice. With the amount of US troops in the area, there is a very real risk that they will be dragged into the fighting, and suffer casualties, before Obama even has time to gather his aides to discuss the war.

There are also a couple of interesting developments in the general area, none of which are by themselves really worrying, but they deserve to be taken into consideration:

  • China has apparently moved PTZ-89 tank destroyers to the border. These are specialised vehicle, featuring light armour but powerful guns, meant to take out massed tank units,
  • China and Russia are conducting a joint marine/naval exercise in the area, the highlight of which will be a joint amphibious and air landing,
  • The US Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, normally features the sole US aircraft carrier to be permanently forward based, i.e. having a non-US homeport. Currently, we are in the short window of time where no such carrier is in place, as the USS Georg Washington (CVN-73) which has been homeported in Yokosuka since 2008, has left Japan for San Diego. She arrived in the US two weeks ago (10.08), and her replacement, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) has yet to leave for Japan. In other words, the US forces that rapidly could take part in a conflict in Korea is missing the equivalent of a decently sized (larger than Finland’s) air force,
  • An explosion occurred late yesterday at the US Army base close to Yokosuka, Camp Zama. While the reason behind this latest incident is unclear, a suspected attack on the base by Japanese extreme-leftist was investigated earlier this year. This incident also places further strain on the relations between local Japanese authorities and the US forces in Japan,
  • This was followed by a huge fire at a nearby steel plant, which closed Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

The Pacific Narrative

After the latest round of G7 talks, the leaders of the countries in this exclusive club declared that lifting the sanctions imposed upon Russia won’t happen unless Russia exits Ukraine, and that they are ready “to strengthen sanctions if the situation makes that necessary” [Guardian].

Sanctions are West’s preferred weapon to combat an increasingly aggressive Russia, while making sure that they won’t do anything that could escalate the situation into all-out war. Thus, we should all be able to sleep soundly in our beds, with the exception of the Ukrainians (and possibly Moldavians), right?

The war in the Pacific is far less known than it deserves to be here in the Northern Europe, and the narrative usually starts with a sudden Japanese strike on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Seldom is the Japanese reasoning behind why they decided to launch an all-out war with a global power developed. In light of recent development in Europe, I think a short recap of the events involving Japan stretching a further ten years back is in order1.

In 1931 a large number of incidents of various severities took place in China (which was rapidly disintegrating in what we today would call a failed state), culminating in what was effectively a Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Japan then declared Manchuria independent as the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Japan entered into the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, the fear of communism being one of the main reasons why Japan ventured into China to begin with. Another step towards more hostile relations with the west was the Japanese withdrawal from naval limitation treaties in the same year, and in particular the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which many in Japan had felt was a “humiliation” by the USA and the United Kingdom, given that it only allowed Japan a ratio of 3:5 in capital ships and tonnage compared to the British Royal Navy and the US Navy (it should be noted though that both Italy and France had accepted a yet smaller ratio of capital ships of 1.75:5 compared to the RN and USN).

With Japanese-US relations in a slow but steady decline, the accidental (?) bombing of the US gunboat USS Panay in 1937 only made things worse. The same year the Japanese army had launched a full-scale invasion into China, and the US administration was not happy about it. For their part, the Japanese did not appreciate western aid to Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang.

Things then took another turn for the worse in 1938 when Japan concluded the occupation of Eastern China, and followed it up by declaring a “New Order in East Asia” (東亜新秩序 Tōa Shin Chitsujo). The major western powers of the day, USA, the United Kingdom, and France, all declared their opposition to this new order. In response to the aggressive Japanese foreign politics in general and towards China in particular, the US withdrew from a number of bilateral US-Japanese trade agreements in the summer of 1939. This came as a surprise and a serious bow for Japan, which with limited amounts of raw materials was reliant on foreign trade for its prosperity.

Still, this did not deter the Japanese, as events in Europe forced Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands to focus their attention closer to home. Thus, in June 1940, the Japanese Foreign Minister Arita declared the need for a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” (大東亞共榮圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken), and then Japan moved to implement it by invading French Indochina the same autumn in what was one of the least bloody wars South East Asia would experience during the 20th century.

Now things started to escalate quickly. In July 1941 USA declared an embargo on exports of scrap metal and oil, which lead to vocal Japanese protests. Unrelenting, Washington moved on, freezing Japanese assets in the country. A series of more or less sincere negotiations followed, in which Washington demanded that Japan withdraw from conquered territories, while the Japanese standpoint was that for an agreement to be reached, USA needed to “show understanding” regarding the national needs of Japan, and “see the realities” of the region such as they were. In November, USA officially demanded that Japan withdraw to the borders prior to the invasion of Manchuria ten years earlier (at least that was the Japanese interpretation, whether or not Washington meant Manchukuo to be included is debatable). Giving up ten years of land grabs was not on the Japanese agenda, and by that time a large force from the Imperial Japanese Navy had already set sail for Hawaii.

1The following account is largely based upon Albert Axell & Hideaki Kase: “Kamikaze – Japan’s Suicide Gods”, which is a book I’d not recommend in itself. It seems to be largely written to defend Japanese behaviour prior to and during the war in general and Kamikaze-tactics in particular, something it tries to do by e.g. comparing Kamikaze pilots with British CAM-pilots. Still, despite these less than impressive arguments, the book can provide some valuable insights.

The Consequences of Crimea for the NPT

One thing that has been mentioned but seldom actually discussed during the Crimean crisis is the fact that 20 years ago, Ukraine hosted the third largest stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons, next only to Russia and the USA. As has been stated a number of times by different media, they transferred their warheads (and some carriers) back to Russia for dismantling, and in exchange received written promises that Russia would “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine [and] to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.”[1]

The problem here is that the obvious lesson seems to be that being nice doesn’t work in the real world.

It is difficult to say whether keeping a nuclear stockpile would have worked as a deterrent against the Russian invasion of Crimea, and if Ukraine would have met the economic and technical requirements to maintain such a deterrent. However, what we do know is that the written assurances did not work, so it is no far-fetched guess that in Ukraine today at least some of its leaders asks themselves if it was a mistake.

I don’t believe Ukraine will ditch the NPT to develop a new arsenal due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is how Russia would react to such a decision. However, there are a number of places in the world where this might have implications.

That nuclear weapons are restricted to certain countries is not a law of nature. In fact, quite a number of countries studied whether or not they should acquire their own weapons in the early part of the Cold War, but in the end, the costs and technical difficulties meant that only a handful of countries actually created operational weapons, and in the meantime nuclear weapons had received a fairly bad reputation amongst civilians, something which further restricted their use. However, this is in no way an irreversible process, as e.g. North Korea has shown.

If it is felt that the NPT does not work, countries that feels threatened by their neighbors (especially if the neighbors are armed with WMD’s), might very well start to look into the possibility of acquiring their own. Especially in the Far East, where China has both a sizeable nuclear stockpile and is starting to flex its muscles more aggressively, countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan/ROC may feel that the added security of a nuclear shield is worth the worsening diplomatic relation such a move would create. This will not happen in the near future, but I believe it is not impossible in the medium term. Japan is struggling with worsening demographics and an uncertain economy which might hamper its planned expansion of its conventional forces. South Korea has the latest nuclear state as its neighbor and is quarrelling with China about its sea borders. Taiwan is always looking for ways to stop a Chinese assault, and while China rapidly is expanding the PLAN, the US is a far from certain ally. In all cases, having a nuclear deterrent might be just the solution the politicians are looking for.

And Ukraine being invaded by the country it gave its weapons too, might be just the spark needed for a new nuclear arms race to start.

Edit: Over at KKRVA a nice analysis partly about the same subject can be found in Swedish under the title Ukraina – Tre döende patienter.