The Koreas: The risk of miscalculation

The joint US-South Korean military exercises known as “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” have got underway, and so far the heavens have not fallen.

The joint US-South Korean military exercises known as “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” have got underway, and so far the heavens have not fallen.

The American forces have not launched an unprovoked assault on North Korea, despite the strident claims of Pyongyang’s media that the exercises are a cover for exactly such a plan.

In fact, joint exercises on this scale — they only involve 13,000 American and South Korean troops — have been held every year of the past 40 and pose no threat whatever to North Korea.

Neither has North Korea chosen to ‘defend its sovereignty,’ as it recently threatened to do, by launching pre-emptive nuclear strikes against both the United States and South Korea.

It could certainly do huge damage to South Korea, bur despite its successful nuclear and missile tests in the past three months it still lacks all but the most rudimentary capability to hit the United States.

Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February had twice the explosive power of the last one in 2009, but nobody believes North Korea’s claim that it has also made its bomb small enough to fit on the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Nor does the Unha-3 missile, which Pyongyang used to launch a satellite in December, have the guidance systems and re-entry technology necessary to deliver such a nuclear weapon onto an American target — which would have to be in western Alaska, since that is the limit of the rocket’s range.

There is no doubt that Kim Jong-un’s regime is feeling extremely peeved about the international response to its weapon and missile tests, which has included tighter United Nations trade sanctions that got unanimous support in the Security Council.

Even North Korea’s only ally, China, voted for them.

In a particularly peevish gesture, he has even cut the military hotline between the two sides at Panmunjom. (If you think there’s going to be a crisis, the last thing you want is a secure and rapid means of talking to the other side.)

But it’s really just an empty gesture: an alternative military communications line, used to monitor cross-border workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, remains open.

But it’s a long way from feeling peeved to feeling suicidal.

Any North Korean nuclear attack on an American target would be answered by immediate US strikes that would annihilate the military and civilian leadership in Pyongyang, obliterate its nuclear facilities, and probably destroy much else besides.

So North Korea’s threat to launch a ‘pre-emptive’ nuclear strike against the United States, or even against South Korea, is totally implausible.

However, the young and inexperienced North Korean leader may feel the need to prove his mettle to his own military commanders by taking some more limited action against the US-South Korean exercises.

That sort of thing can easily go wrong.

There is a widespread perception in South Korea that Seoul was caught off-guard by North Korea’s sinking of the warship Cheonan and its artillery attacks on Yeonpyeong island in 2010.

North Korea paid no military price for either action, and South Korea’s newly elected president, Park Geun-hye, who took office only two weeks ago, needs to show South Koreans that she is not going to let that happen again.

She probably also hopes that a promise of prompt and severe retaliation will deter North Korea from any future attacks of that sort.

So she has engaged in some rhetorical escalation of her own.

She has warned North Korea that any further attacks will be met by instant retaliation that targets not only the units involved in the attack, but also North Korea’s high command.

No doubt this is only intended to deter any such North Korean attack, but in practice it means that there will be much more rapid and uncontrollable escalation if Pyongyang makes a token attack anyway.

Even a conventional war in the Korean peninsula would be hugely destructive. Just north of the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ between the two countries is the largest concentration of artillery in the entire world, and the mega-city of Seoul is within long artillery range of the border.

North Korea’s population is considerably smaller than South Korea’s, but the North maintains the fourth largest army in the world.

Its armed forces operate mostly last-generation weaponry, but the equipment is well maintained and the soldiers appear to be well trained. The last war between the two countries killed over a million people and left all the peninsula’s cities in ruins — and that was over 60 years ago.

If North Korea ignored Park’s warning and made some local attack to demonstrate its displeasure, and Park then felt obliged to act on her threat to go after the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang in retaliation, things could get very ugly very fast.

So far the US-South Korean exercises have gone off smoothly, but the risk of a serious miscalculation first in Pyongyang and then in Seoul is real, and the exercises still have more than a week (until 25 March) to run.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer reports 25th COVID-19 death

415 new cases identified provincially Saturday

Erika Fetterly, owner of EFP Studios, recently launched the Let Them Have A Voice campaign. (Contributed photo)
Central Alberta photographer’s campaign aims to give youths a voice

An Innisfail photographer is giving a platform to young central Albertans so… Continue reading

More than 120,000 Albertans have signed up to get the COVID-19 vaccine in the first two days of appointment bookings. (Photo courtesy Alberta Health Services Twitter)
Alberta Health Services apologizes after seniors struggle to book vaccine appointments

The CEO and president of Alberta Health Services is apologizing after seniors… Continue reading

Red Deer’s Kyle Moore, 26, will be a houseguest on Season 9 of Big Brother Canada. (Photo courtesy Big Brother Canada)
Red Deer man will be a houseguest on Big Brother Canada

A Red Deer man will be a houseguest on the upcoming season… Continue reading

Red Deer Public Schools says that in the absence of additional funds from the provincial government, there was no consideration of using alternate classroom sites in the district. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Red Deer Public Schools launches online engagement process

Red Deer Public schools is seeking community input to help ensure a… Continue reading

An arrest by Red Deer RCMP is facing online scrutiny. No charges have been laid and the incident is still under investigation. (Screenshot of YouTube video)
Red Deer RCMP investigating violent arrest caught on video

Police say officer ‘acted within the scope of his duties’

Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray (30) stands in his crease as Calgary Flames left wing Andrew Mangiapane (88), left to right, defenceman Rasmus Andersson (4), Matthew Tkachuk (19), Mikael Backlund (11) and Mark Giordano (5) celebrate a goal during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Calgary Flames beat Ottawa 6-3 to end Senators’ three-game win streak

Flames 6 Senators 3 OTTAWA — The Calgary Flames used a balanced… Continue reading

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) falls on his knees as he skates around Ottawa Senators defenceman Artem Zub (2) during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday, February 18, 2021. The Maple Leafs will be without star centre Auston Matthews when they take on the Edmonton Oilers Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Toronto star Auston Matthews won’t play as Leafs face Oilers

EDMONTON — The Maple Leafs will be without star centre Auston Matthews… Continue reading

Crosses are displayed in memory of the elderly who died from COVID-19 at the Camilla Care Community facility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on November 19, 2020. The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection is likely to be much higher than recorded because of death certificates don't always list the virus as the cause of a fatality, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Death certificates don’t accurately reflect the toll of the pandemic, experts say

The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough to cover the average pinky nail but is made up of more than 280 components and requires at least three manufacturing plants to produce. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
From science to syringe: COVID-19 vaccines are miracles of science and supply chains

OTTAWA — A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough… Continue reading

Wetaskiwin RCMP say a Maskwacis man died after he was struck by a vehicle. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Clare’s Law in Saskatchewan used handful of times; Mounties review their role

REGINA — A first-of-its-kind law in Canada meant to warn those at… Continue reading

The Magpie river in Quebec is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Boreal River MANDATORY CREDIT
Quebec river granted legal rights as part of global ‘personhood’ movement

MONTREAL — With its kilometres of rapids and deep blue waters winding… Continue reading

Thorough sanding of a table top is usually the first step to renewing a finish. Wax contaminants can sometimes still remain on a surface like this after sanding. Cleaning with rubbing alcohol and a rag gets rid of these contaminants without leaving a residue behind. (Photo by Steve Maxwell)
Houseworks: Fixing wood finishes

Q: How can I stop polyurethane from beading up on a mahogany… Continue reading

Most Read