Part 1 of analysis
North Korea is currently facing major domestic distress. The sanctions imposed on it and its agricultural difficulties have led to serious hunger, the UN reports. Yet instead of suspending its nuclear program and ballistic missiles and resuming talks with the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea (which promised generous aid in food and fuel,) Pyongyang is attempting to extort them via war threats and provocations. This, in essence, is the backdrop for the grave incident where the communist country shelled a South Korean island not too far from the two Koreas western border.
The latest incident is the fifth in a series of grave provocations initiated by North Korea in the past two years, ever since talks hit an impasse. Notwithstanding its pledges, North Korea held a (not particularly successful) nuclear experiment, and also undertook a series of ballistic missile tests, despite US warnings. In the wake of these tests, the United Nations imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Pyongyang, yet the Stalinist regime headed by ill Kim Jong-il was not deterred.
In March of this year, a North Korean submarine sunk a South Korean navy ship. North Korea denied any involvement in the incident, yet a UN commission of inquiry ruled that Pyongyang was indeed responsible, prompting the US to impose further sanctions. In response, North Korea announced that nobody could guarantee this would not have grave implications for peace and stability in the region. A few days ago, Pyongyang presented an American scientist with a new uranium-enrichment facility, and Tuesday it shelled the South Korean island. This act brings the two Koreas dangerously close to the brink of war.
At the same time, North Korea constantly continues, with active Chinese diplomatic assistance, to invite the US to resume the talks on Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program, in exchange for economic benefits and lifting of the sanctions. It's easy to see what the North Korean leadership aims to achieve via this belligerent brinkmanship. The main target is to create a situation whereby the sanctions are lifted and Pyongyang receives an immediate and significant supply of food and fuel, before Pyongyang ever commits to curbing its military nuclear program, and before International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are ever allowed to return to North Korea.
The other objective is domestic. Current leader Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke two years ago and is having trouble functioning. Hence, a few months ago he embarked on the process of handing over power to his son, Kim Jong-Un. However, the regime in Pyongyang is concerned that domestic and international rivals would take advantage of the sensitive period in order to destabilize the regime and extort political and military compromises. Through their provocations against South Korea, Kim Jong-il and his generals showcase their power, confidence, and hold on the country in a manner which they believe will deter their rivals.
No answer to North's missilesThis strategy leaves South Korea and the Obama Administration helpless. South Korea is well familiar with its own military inferiority vis-à-vis North Korea's million-man army, which is equipped with modern arms and ballistic missiles. While South Korea's arms and aircraft are more advanced than Pyongyang's, the quantitative inferiority vis-à-vis the North and the North Korea regime's willingness to sustain casualties and destruction decisively tilt the balance in the North's favor.
Moreover, despite its technological and industrial strength, South Korea does not possess substantial capability to intercept missiles and rockets. Seoul is currently in initial stages of acquiring such systems (including the "Green Pine" radar system made in Israel.)
Hence, even if it does not use the nuclear weapons it may or may not possesses, North Korea can literally raze Seoul in a matter of days and gravely undermine the flourishing South Korean industrial sector and economy. Should a war break out, the roughly 40,000 US troops deployed in South Korea ever since the 1950s are also at risk. These forces possess advanced Patriot missiles capable of intercepting ballistic missiles, yet in low numbers compared to the North's rocket and artillery arsenal.
The South Korean government is well aware of its situation, and also of the fact that the Obama Administration, which is entangled in Afghanistan and Iraq, would not rush into another war in the Korea Peninsula. Hence, Korean President Lee Myung-bak quickly declared that despite the North's blatant provocation, his country has no intention of being dragged into a conflict and would do everything it can to avoid escalation.
Part 2 of analysis to be published Tuesday night
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