Korea

Twin troubles

Print edition : March 31, 2017

An undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on March 1, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspecting the Large Combined Unit 966 of the Korean Poeple's Army. Photo: AFP

U.S. Army soldiers preparing for their military exercise in Paju, near South Korea's border with North Korea, on March 6. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP

A man believed to be Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il and a half brother of the North Korean leader Kin Jong-un. He was killed in Kuala Lumpur airport on February 13. Photo: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

Jay Y. Lee, co-vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., facing allegations of bribery and embezzlement, at the special prosecutors' office in Seoul on February 13. Photo: Bloomberg

The two Koreas provoke China into punitive actions: the South by deciding to deploy the U.S. THAAD missile system and the North by test firing its new intermediate-range missile.

NORTH and South Korea have been in the news lately mostly for the wrong reasons. Until recently, it was South Korea that was hogging most of the headlines following the impeachment proceedings against its President, Park Geun-hye, on charges of corruption.

The arrest of Jay Y. Lee, the head of the Samsung conglomerate, South Korea’s biggest by far, on charges of bribing the country’s top officials, including the President, is already having an impact on the country’s booming economy. If the fortunes of Samsung are hit, the South Korean economy is sure to suffer. The conglomerate is the leading seller of smartphones and television sets and other white goods in the world, and its products account for a significant percentage of the country’s huge export earnings.

Now there is added pressure on the South Korean economy with China, the country’s leading trade partner, threatening to boycott South Korean products. China was angered by South Korea’s decision to install the United States’ surface-to-air Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) systems on its territory despite Chinese protests.

Opposition politicians in South Korea have already voiced their strong opposition to the proposed deployment of the anti-missile system. South Korea will soon go in for a presidential election if the courts give permission for the impeachment process to reach its logical conclusion. The opposition is favoured to win the election. Opposition politicians have alleged that the U.S. wants to speed up the installation of the THAAD batteries before a new government takes over.

China views the deployment seriously. The THAAD system has a range of more than 200 kilometres and is designed to intercept incoming missiles. China fears the system’s powerful radars will pose a serious threat to its coastal defence. Russia has also indicated to South Korea that the deployment of THAAD missiles is detrimental to its security interests. Both Beijing and Moscow see the deployment as yet another illustration of the growing nexus among Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. China wants a unified response with Russia to confront what it calls “the U.S.-Japan-South Korea anti-missile network”.

Japan has said that it will also be deploying the THAAD batteries on its soil. The South Korean government continues to insist that the sole purpose of the THAAD missiles is to deter missile attacks from the North. China sees the deployment as an important step in Washington’s military pivot to the East and the attempt to encircle China.

The newspaper Global Times, which is close to the Chinese establishment, warned that South Korea should be ready to face serious consequences. People’s Daily, the paper of the Chinese Communist Party, went to the extent of calling for the cutting of the “ de facto” diplomatic ties between the two countries and taking diplomatic and political measures against South Korea. China has already started discouraging tourists from going to South Korea. By the beginning of February, the number of Chinese tourists had declined significantly. South Korea was one of the favourite destinations for the big-spending Chinese tourists. China has also scrapped South Korean TV serials and concerts by K-pop (Korean pop) stars. China has hinted that the Korean car industry may be the next on the hit list if the lame-duck government in Seoul insists on going ahead with the installation of the THAAD missiles.

China’s strong message to North Korea

China is also upset with North Korea for a variety of reasons. Beijing’s calls for Pyongyang to exercise restraint in its nuclear and missile tests have had no impact. The Chinese government had called upon the incoming Donald Trump administration in the U.S. to start direct negotiations with the North Korean government on disarmament issues. But North Korea chose to test its new intermediate-range nuclear-capable missile when President Trump was hosting the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in the U.S. China may have its own suspicions about the circumstances relating to the killing of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, at a busy airport in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. The finger of suspicion is on the North Korean government although Pyongyang vigorously denies the allegations of both homicide and the use of a banned chemical weapon. Kim Jong-nam was a resident of Macao, a special administrative region of China.

China is one of the few remaining allies of North Korea besides being its largest trading partner. North Korea’s coal export to China is a key element in the sustenance of its economy. In the third week of February, China announced that it was suspending the import of coal from North Korea. Global Times said that the move would make it difficult for North Korea to exploit the differences among global powers on the issue of international sanctions on the country aimed at curtailing its nuclear and missile programmes. In 2016, China imported three times the amount of coal from North Korea than what was allowed under the United Nations sanctions regime. The sanctions allow exemptions if the trade benefits the livelihood of “ordinary North Koreans”.

With the public announcement that it was suspending the import of coal, a source of much-needed hard currency, China is sending a strong message to the current leadership in North Korea that its patience is running thin. North Korea dispatched the senior diplomat Ri Kil-song to China in a bid to iron out the differences. Ri Kil-song held talks with senior Chinese officials, including the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi. In separate statements issued after the talks, the two sides stressed the “traditional friendship” that existed between the two countries.

Ties with Malaysia damaged

One country with which North Korea’s diplomatic ties seem to have been irretrievably damaged is Malaysia. The Malaysian government ordered the expulsion of the North Korean Ambassador, Kang Chol. Malaysia demanded an apology from the diplomat for questioning the veracity of the findings of the probe into the death of Kim Jong-nam. North Korea said that Kim died of a heart attack and demanded that his body be immediately returned to his homeland. North Korea dismissed the charge that Kim was killed with a banned nerve agent, VX.

South Korea accused the North Korean government of masterminding the death of Kim. The North Korean Ambassador had charged that the Malaysian investigation into the case was politically motivated and its intention was to tarnish his country’s image.

North Korea has demanded that Malaysia sends samples of the VX agent found on the dead man’s body to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for analysis. Malaysia has not allowed North Korean officials to conduct their own investigations in Kuala Lumpur. In a statement issued in the first week of March, North Korea said that any conclusion on the use of chemical weapons should be made “only on the basis of identical results of analysis made by two specialist laboratories”. The statement warned “some countries” from using the incident for political purposes. The murder has been used by North Korea’s many enemies to further vilify the country. Addressing the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) conference in Geneva, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se accused North Korea of using chemical weapons to carry out the assassination and suggested that Pyongyang’s membership in the U.N. be suspended.

Trump cancels talks

The Trump administration announced in the first week of March that it was cancelling planned “back-channel” talks with North Korea, effectively blocking meaningful negotiations for the foreseeable future. Trump told the media that North Korea was “a world menace” that had to be “dealt with soon”. It has been revealed that the U.S. has a contingency plan for regime change by using military force against North Korea. Senior Trump administration officials have described North Korea and its nuclear programme as “the greatest immediate threat” to the U.S.’ security. The previous administration was also working overtime to undermine the “hermit state”.

Three years ago, the Barack Obama administration launched a cyber programme aimed at crippling North Korea’s missile programme and causing industrial sabotage. Iran was also a target. The U.S. and Israel used the “Stuxnet” virus to temporarily cripple Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme. After the cyber and electronic warfare programme was launched against North Korea, rockets and missiles tested by Pyonyang tended to go off course or explode in mid-air. The Western media blamed the mishaps on the lack of technical expertise on the part of North Korea. It is claimed in Washington that the failure of North Korea’s missile tests was a result of U.S. sabotage. But with the successful testing of a new intermediate range missile, North Korea has regained the initiative. The Trump administration’s focus is now to ensure that North Korea does not master the intercontinental ballistic missile technology. The February 12 missile test was a reflection of North Korea’s advanced ballistic missile technology. Pyongyang claimed that the new intermediate-range missile could carry a nuclear warhead. The North Korean leader said in his New Year speech that final preparations were on for the launch of an intercontinental missile.

North Korea’s hacking of Sony Pictures is an illustration that it is not a novice in cyberwarfare. Seventy per cent of the company’s computing system was destroyed. North Korea has tried to disrupt the annual joint military exercises conducted by the U.S. and South Korea by jamming electronic signals for guided weapons. In the first week of March, North Korea launched four more ballistic missiles from its long-range rocket site in Tongchang-ri. The launch was aimed to coincide with the ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises. North Korea has described the military exercises as a drill for “nuclear war”.

Last year, 300,000 South Korean and 27,000 U.S. troops participated in the joint military exercises. This year, the exercises are being conducted on a more massive scale, with a U.S. aircraft carrier carrying F-35B Stealth fighters participating in them. In 2015, Washington and Seoul changed their military stance towards Pyongyang, stating that the military exercises were no longer of a “defensive” nature. The focus of the latest military exercises has been on “pre-emptive” strikes against North Korea and on “decapitation raids” to take out North Korea’s political and military leadership.

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