Tag Archives: South Korea

Rethinking the Korean Peninsula Crisis

North Korea Topic Week

By Ching Chang

Introduction

In the past few months, the Korean Peninsula has once again become the focus of security challenges in the Asia-Pacific. Accompanied with the unstable political situation after the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, unanimously passed by the Republic of Korean Constitutional Court on March 10, 2017, Pyongyang decided to conduct a series of military exercises and a sixth nuclear test, making regional stability even worse.

The Republic of Korea and the United States of America started the annual military exercises known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle in order to deter any North Korean adventurism before the next president was elected in mid-May. Simultaneously with the emerging crisis in the Korean peninsula, a dramatic summit between Beijing and Washington was held in early April. Donald Trump and Xi Jinping exchanged their perspectives on the Korean Peninsula at the Mar-a-Lago estate, though no clear and conclusive approach reached a consensus during this meeting.

Many observers had predicted that an imminent conflict may erupt then simply because both United States and North Korea had shown their forces in such a high profile manner. Nonetheless, some still argued that there was no possibility of any armed conflict since no signal of real war preparation ever appeared. Furthermore, all U.S.-ROK annual joint exercises are conducted with proper scales. No particular alert poise and combat readiness may prove any attempt to solve the North Korean threats with military contingency maneuvers. As the situation around the Korean Peninsula returns to normal now, we should reevaluate the Korean Peninsula crisis in order to identify where the misperceptions are that lead us to an overstatement of the reality in North Korea.

Strategic Dimensions of A Nuclear DPRK

First, how serious is the challenge that can be brought by the North Korean missile and nuclear program? Since 2006, Pyongyang has successfully conducted nuclear tests five times. Unquestionably, the North Korean regime can be defined as nuclear-capable. Nonetheless, we should not automatically assume that Kim Jong-un already owns any reliable nuclear weapon. We should remember that conducting a nuclear test in a well-managed underground facility is one thing; acquiring reliable nuclear weapons with a delivery vehicle through the weaponization process is another issue.

Key questions abound. Does a nuclear test and a missile test necessarily indicate a mature nuclear missile? Did Pyongyang ever prove that it has successfully completed the weaponization process from its primitive nuclear test yet? Can nuclear tests that happened in 2006, 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016 be sufficient to prove that North Korea may already own a mature nuclear weapon and the associated delivery vehicle? Do we need to review the historical records of various nuclear powers who developed their own nuclear arsenals? Is it unrealistic to assume that North Korea is capable of completing the weaponization process based on only a few tests? Even if North Korea has the luck to complete the weaponization process of its nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles within such a short period of time, has Pyongyang established a credible nuclear force yet?

Ko Yun-hwa (L), Administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016. (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)

A well-articulated nuclear force is far more complicated than simply establishing a military force with nuclear weapons and delivery tools. The investment of command and control mechanisms that are compatible with the nuclear strategy may consume more of a budget than the nuclear weapon systems themselves. Force protection facilities and special forces for protecting the nuclear arsenal as well as other nuclear-related establishments are vital investments to build a mature nuclear force. We have already seen in the case of Pakistan and India how hard it is for them to retain their credibility of nuclear deterrence after their own nuclear tests. Arguably, we may also speculate that Pyongyang so far is only nuclear-capable, but to have any reliable nuclear arsenal and credible nuclear force, we have still yet to see.

Second, we should ask how North Korean nuclear capacity may convert into any political influence. It is very hard to see if Kim’s regime may use the nuclear weapon as a coercive means to take any offensive actions towards neighboring states. Has Pyongyang ever mentioned that the nuclear weapon will be used other than self-defense? Can North Korea afford a first-strike nuclear strategy? We should reconsider the purpose of Kim’s nuclear policy instead of misconstruing his real intention. Is a nuclear weapon a good choice to enhance the legitimacy of the government, thus assuring the political survivability of the regime? Given the case of the former Soviet Union, the answer is not ideal for Kim Jong-un. Can the nuclear arsenal enhance the political legitimacy of the North Korean government? This answer may also be disappointing. Kim’s nuclear policy has a very slim probability of reshaping the power structure in Northeast Asia and supporting the political survival of Kim’s regime. We should make no mistake in mistaking North Korea’s nuclear weapon for Iran’s anti-ship missile, which can immensely affect maritime transportation at the exit of the Persian Gulf. The nuclear weapons held by the North Korean may not have the same influence as other military assets in Kim’s hands, such as the hundreds of conventional artillery assets proximate to Seoul. 

North Korea has carried out massive artillery drills, possibly the largest in the country’s history, to mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of the country’s Army. (KCNA)

The China Factor

Third, the China factor in the Korean Peninsula should be clearly identified. There is much speculation on Beijing’s position towards Pyongyang. Undeniably, China is the only key ally to this isolated state. Nevertheless, the influence of China on North Korea is also limited. China has clearly addressed its position on the North Korean nuclear issue with several statements noted by the Chinese governmental white paper titled China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation issued on January 11, 2017. It first admitted that “The nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula is complex and sensitive ” which proves that managing a nuclear Korean Peninsula is a daunting challenge to Beijing, too. Unlike many accusations of China secretly helping Pyongyang develop its nuclear arsenal, this policy statement clearly indicated China’s disagreement with the existence of North Korea’s nuclear capability.

Moreover, China also clearly expressed the willingness to cooperate with the United States on this issue, stating “China has actively pushed for peaceful solutions to hotspot issues such as the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and the Afghanistan issue, and played its due role as a responsible major country” and that, “The two countries have made steady progress in practical cooperation in various fields, and maintained close communication and coordination on major regional and global issues like climate change, the Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, Syria, and Afghanistan.” We, therefore, should remember that the Mar-a-Lago summit is not a starting point for the U.S.-PRC cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue, but a reaffirmation of positions. More importantly, it makes the following statement:

“China is committed to the denuclearization of the peninsula, its peace and stability, and settlement of the issue through dialogue and consultation. Over the years, China has made tremendous efforts to facilitate the process of denuclearization of the peninsula, safeguard the overall peace and stability there, and realize an early resumption of the Six-Party Talks… the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted two nuclear tests and launched missiles of various types, violating UN Security Council resolutions and running counter to the wishes of the international community. China has made clear its opposition to such actions and supported the relevant Security Council resolutions to prevent the DPRK’s further pursuit of nuclear weapons…other parties concerned should not give up the efforts to resume talks or their responsibilities to safeguard peace and stability on the peninsula.”  

We, therefore, may conclude with a clear picture of China’s position on Pyongyang’s nuclear adventurism.

However, it is necessary to remember another issue: the deployment of the THAAD missile system in the Korean Peninsula in recent months. Although Beijing hasn’t linked this issue with the North Korean nuclear issue yet, Washington should be aware of the sensitivity of this military maneuver. Given that the white paper states “Despite clear opposition from relevant countries including China, the U.S. and the Republic of Korea (ROK) announced the decision to start and accelerate the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in the ROK. Such an act would seriously damage the regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of China and other countries in the region, and run counter to the efforts for maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. China firmly opposes the U.S. and ROK deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in the ROK, and strongly urges the U.S. and the ROK to stop this process.” Of course, the newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in may have the possibility to change the decision of deploying the THAAD system. Nonetheless, Washington should consider how these two issues can be well-managed together before any linkage actually emerges in Beijing’s strategic calculus in the future.

China-DPRK Treaty Ties

Last but not least, during past several months, there has been a missing point rarely noted in commentary. The Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty signed on July 11, 1961 is still a valid security assurance granted by Beijing so far. Article Two is a provision of mutual military assistance in the event of security threats to either signatory. The phrases of assuring military intervention as “The two parties undertake jointly to adopt all measures to prevent aggression against either party by any state,” and “in the event of one of the parties being subjected to the armed attack by any state or several states together and thus being involved in a state of war, the other party shall immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal,” gave the treaty characteristics of a pact for security alliance.

Also, Article Three notes, “Neither party shall conclude any alliance directed against the other party or take part in any bloc or in any action or measure directed against the other party,” which can possibly exclude the possibility of Beijing granting tacit consent to Washington for any military maneuver involving the decapitation of North Korean leadership or the destruction of its nuclear facilities with military strikes. Although it is very unrealistic to argue that the Article Three of this treaty may effectively restrict any cooperative diplomatic effort between Washington and Beijing towards Pyongyang, it is necessary to understand Beijing’s present position of interpreting the terms noted in this treaty.

Conclusion

The Korean Peninsula crisis will never be the catalyst for improving Sino-US relations, though both parties do share the concern of future development. There are so many issues on the mutual relations agenda between Washington and Beijing. On the other hand, the Korean Peninsula crisis is the best chance for the Japanese Abe’s regime to have an excuse to revise its constitution. For the Japanese concern on the Korean Peninsula is a “just cause” or only a “just because”, the strategy planners in Washington should well assess its significances. With many misconceptions already existing on the Korean Peninsula, the most valuable advice would be “always be aware of those who intend to fish in troubled waters”. Before taking prompt decisions and taking the viewpoints from media commentary, reviewing all the basic documents carefully should also be an essential element for formulating future policies.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a visiting faculty member of the China Military Studies Masters Program at the National Defense University, ROC, he is recognized as a leading expert on the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinkings.

Featured Image: A North Korean soldier watches the South Korean side at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul April 4, 2013. (Reuters/Lee Jung-hoon/Yonhap)

China’s South China Sea Strategy: Simply Brilliant

This article can be found in its original form at ASPI here, and was republished with permission.

In the past 12 months, China has provoked considerable attention with its reclamation activities in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratlys where it controls seven maritime features.

China’s history of salami-slicing presents a dilemma to regional countries as well as external powers with regional interests: do they escalate an incident each time China slices the salami and risk open conflict, or stand down and allow China to augment its territorial claims.

The million-dollar question remains: who or what will freeze China’s reclamation in the South China Sea? The answer: nothing, really.

It has been proposed, for example, that like-minded states carve out a ‘code of practice’ that would stress the rule of law and mirror the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Another option being considered by the Pentagon is to send US aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-built reefs in the Spratlys, to challenge its influence there.

While useful, such proposals won’t freeze or rollback China’s attempts to change the facts on the ground (or the high sea). China’s reclamation seeks to pre-empt any decision that would come from the Philippines’ challenge in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over China’s nine-dash line claim to the South China Sea.

It’s noteworthy that China hasn’t only engaged in salami slicing; it has sought to use the attraction of its economy, trade and aid to offset its high-risk behaviour.

Following the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident with the Philippines, China launched a charm offensive in 2013, wooing ASEAN with a treaty of friendship and cooperation, stressing that it intended to take China–ASEAN relations from a ‘golden decade’ to a ‘diamond decade’.

This year, when concerns about China’s reclamation have intensified, China has offered a carrot: US and other countries would be welcome to use civilian facilities it’s building in the South China Sea for search and rescue and weather forecasting, when ‘conditions are right’.

China has also used its economic weight to deftly tilt the balance (of influence, at least) in its favor. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is attracting long-standing American allies such as Great Britain, Australia and South Korea. China has stolen a march on the US in the battle to win friends and influence people.

And the economic offensive doesn’t end with the AIIB. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—a free trade agreement that would involve ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea—is seen as a rival to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is also another lure for peripheral countries keen on leveraging on China’s economic ascent.

Concerted and effective opposition to China’s fait accompli in the South China Sea requires an astute mix of diplomacy and deterrence. It might take the form of a regional effort to get China to clarify its nine-dashed line claims based on UNCLOS principles, an ASEAN ultimatum for China to at least freeze its reclamation activities, and joint ASEAN–US patrols near the reefs being reclaimed by China. This looks unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

ASEAN was damaged in 2012, when it failed—for the first time in its 45-year history—to issue a communiqué due to differing views over the South China Sea. ASEAN has recently upped its game by underscoring the dangers of China’s reclamation, but there’s little the group can do apart from pushing for a formal Code of Conduct. A successful conclusion of the code isn’t assured; China dangles the carrot of code negotiations to buy time even as its carries out reclamation.

For all its rhetoric about the need to uphold international law and the freedom of navigation, the US is conflicted when it comes to China. It all boils down to this: will the US risk its extensive relationship with China over a few rocks in the South China Sea? As Hillary Clinton once said: how does the US ‘deal toughly’ toward its banker?

To get a sense of the effect of China’s creeping invasion of the South China Sea, one only need look at Vietnam. Faced with China’s challenge to its claims to the Paracel Islands, Vietnam has purchased Kilo-class submarines, reportedly armed with sub-launched land-attack Klub missiles that could threaten Chinese coastal targets. But Vietnam didn’t fire a shot when China towed a US$1b oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam last year. On a recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnamese scholars told me that Vietnamese military officers urged sterner action, such as firing on Chinese ships, but senior leaders vetoed them, instead deciding to sit back and let China incur ‘reputational damage’.

Not many people in Asia would agree with what China is doing in the South China Sea. But as it stands, China’s strategy—salami slicing, using offsets to soften risky behavior and accelerating its reclamation activities in the absence of significant opposition—can be summed up in two words: simply brilliant.

William Choong is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The Royal Thai Navy: Where to Post-Coup?

Guest Post by Paul Pryce 

With a coup d’état in May 2014 and the appointment of General Prayut Chan-o-cha as Prime Minister, 2014 proved to be a tumultuous year in Thai politics. Still faced with a deeply divided society, it is difficult for the Thai authorities to articulate foreign policy priorities or a grand strategy for the country. Even so, the Royal Thai Navy may soon have important tools available with which Thailand can make its presence felt internationally

Although often overlooked by most reports in favor of the contributions made by the Chinese and the Russians in years since, Thailand was an important player in counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. In response to an increase in Somali-based piracy, Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 was established in January 2009 to secure freedom of navigation along international shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Although comprised largely of vessels and crews from NATO member states, Thailand deployed a Pattani-class off-shore patrol vessel and a supply ship to join the force in 2010-2011.

This was an unprecedented move. For the first time, Thailand deployed military assets abroad to defend its interests. HTMS Pattani and HTMS Similan, the supply ship, did not simply serve in token roles: Thai forces engaged in combat against pirates in two separate incidents on October 23rd, 2010. Beyond hosting ASEAN-related events, such as the 8th ASEAN Navy Chiefs’ Meeting in 2014, the Royal Thai Navy has since adopted a much more subdued posture, however. This can in part be attributed to the political dominance of the Royal Thai Army through last year’s coup.

Were there to be need for Thai participation in a similar multinational operation in Southeast Asia or elsewhere in the world, it is doubtful that the Thai authorities would find the political will to deploy any assets in the near future. But the Royal Thai Navy will soon see its capabilities bolstered. If national unity can be preserved in some way, Thailand could see its international image raised considerably. It has commissioned two stealth-capable corvettes based on the design of the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) Gwanggaeto the Great-class destroyers. With a displacement of approximately 3,900 tons, these would be among the largest vessels in Thailand’s arsenal, second only in size to the Royal Thai Navy’s two American-made Knox-class frigates.

Although it is currently unclear when Thailand expects delivery of its two Gawnggaeto the Great variants, the eventual addition of these vessels to the fleet will greatly enhance its capacity to project power in the Gulf of Thailand, South China Sea, and beyond. Thailand has no maritime disputes with China; tensions over territory exist only in relation to the land borders with Cambodia and Laos. As such, it is a reasonable assumption that the previous government intended to employ the new vessels not to exert Thai sovereignty, but to appease military elites and to attain international prestige through contributions to future multinational maritime operations. That the current junta has not cancelled this procurement suggests that it too shares these goals.

Of course, achieving the political stability necessary to engage in expeditionary missions will be a tall order, especially as legal action against Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s former Prime Minister who was ousted in the May 2014 coup, is ongoing. Until such issues can be resolved and civilian oversight of the military is adequately restored, HTMS Chakri Naruebet, pictured below, may represent the future of the Royal Thai Navy.

The Royal Thai Naval vessel HTMS CHAKRINARUEBET (CVH 911) in the South China Sea.
HTMS CHAKRINARUEBET  in the South China Sea.

This vessel, which serves as Thailand’s flagship and is based on the design of the Spanish aircraft carrier Principe de Asturias, spends much of its time docked at Sattahip naval base. No longer able to accommodate Harrier airframes, the Chakri Naruebet can now carry a small complement of helicopters and occasionally serves as a royal yacht. The two stealth corvettes may suffer a similar fate if Bangkok’s palace politics persist.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities in both Canada and Estonia, he has previously worked as a Research Fellow at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

Naval Build-Up in the Philippines

Like many of its regional peers, the Philippines is in the midst of a defense buildup, motivated in no small part by China’s assertive moves in the western Philippine Sea and the resource-rich Spratly islands. 
              
The donation this week of two Balikpapan-class Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) from Australia was the most recent boost to Philippines defense efforts. 
        
The LCH donation is particularly timely, as it complements the upcoming pair of Strategic Sealift Vessels (SSV), being built by PT PAL Indonesia. Based on the Indonesian navy’s successful Makassar-class Landing Platform Dock (LPD), the 8,600-ton amphibious lift ships can transit to remote areas and serve as a mobile base for helicopters and smaller landing craft. As evidenced during Typhoon Haiyan, the dearth of such assets hampered the Philippine government’s aid response to the hardest-hit parts of the country. 
          
As gifts stand, the donation of ex-HMAS Tarakan and Brunei is particularly generous – the Royal Australian Navy will hand them over fully refurbished with new safety and navigation components, plus spare parts packages. Manila is considering purchasing the three remaining LCHs as well. 
       
While the media focus of Manila’s defense acquisitions under the Capability Upgrade Program has been centered on big-ticket items to restore basic conventional force capabilities, there have been other, quieter acquisitions that directly support war-fighting and maritime domain awareness (MDA). 
         
Notably, the service signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2014 with the Philippine National Oil Company to transfer three retired 2,500 ton petroleum tank ships. This acquisition would enable fuel replenishment at sea and increase on-station time for high-endurance assets like the patrol frigates Ramon Alcaraz and Gregorio Del Pilar, both formerly U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters.  
Another low-profile capability is the National Coast Watch Center program—a surveillance system designed to monitor oceanic traffic in the western Philippine Sea.
              
As expected, details of this national intelligence capability are closely held, but much of it is likely based on the successful implementation of the earlier Coast Watch South program. With heavy U.S. assistance, the Philippines created a network of monitoring stations combining radar, maritime surveillance and radio/data networks that provides a real-time strategic and tactical “picture” of oceanic traffic in the Southern Philippines—the so-called Sulawesi Sea Triangle. That area is a hotbed of illicit trafficking by sea and a favored logistical trail for transnational insurgent forces that prowl the region. When completed in 2015, the west-facing Coast Watch chain will monitor the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), extending 200 nm into the contested Spratly Islands group. In the future, additional monitoring chains will cover the Northern and Eastern facing portions of the country as well. 
           
The most recent, visible and well-publicized modernization program has been the integration of the multipurpose helicopter program with the patrol frigate force. Five Augusta-Westland A109s twin-engine helicopters equipped with forward-looking infrared have been delivered to the fleet to replace long-retired BO-105s. From an operational perspective, the navy has made quick strides to integrating the air asset with ships of the line. The AW109s had a maiden deployment on board Ramon Alcaraz during the Australian multinational military exercise Kakadu 2014, approximately eight months after receiving the first helicopters. 
          
Out of all the projects to restore capabilities, the navy is still awaiting final determination of its premier acquisition – the multi-role frigate. The Philippines wants to buy two units to serve as major and modern combatants of the patrol frigate force. While the negotiations have been stymied by a complex two-phase process, a list of qualified bidders has emerged, including well-known Spanish shipbuilder Navantia and several South Korean firms, among others. A winning bid was to be selected in late 2014, but the acquisition process reportedly has been complicated by efforts to separate the tracks of selecting a ship from the embedded weapon systems. This may have to do with current challenges of the Philippines not being easily cleared for purchases of regional-balance changing weapons, such as a long-range surface-to-surface missile, with which this ship class is normally equipped.  
          
The Armed Forces of the Philippines has benefited under President Benigno Aquino III’s administration. To date, multiple modernization programs have either reached significant acquisition stages or have been completed entirely during his tenure. 
         
However, as the new paint smell wears off for the navy, the historical challenges that have haunted its past acquisitions and programs loom. It is critical that the next presidential administration continue to support the acquisitions, as well as the services, both politically and fiscally. The navy needs to ensure that internal expertise among the ranks to maintain their newly acquired equipment is present and sustainable. Above all, operating effectively and efficiently at sea continues to be the primary objective. The nation’s seafaring history and ties to the maritime culture give impetus to the current goals of ensuring territorial integrity and establishing a credible defense. Given the relatively rapid pace of modernization, the Philippine navy is well on the road to restoring the capabilities necessary to meet those demands. 
                               
Armando J. Heredia is a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner based in New England, with a background in the defense and financial services industries. He is a regular contributor to the Center for International Maritime Security’s NextWar blog.  
                             
This article can be found here in its original form on the USNI website and was republished by permission.