As the US Obama administration limps towards its end, its ‘pivot to Asia’, aimed at the encirclement of China, as well as Russia, is creating one crisis after another and considerably increasing the threat of a devastating Third World War.
Alongside crises in the South China Sea, and in the East China Sea (between China and Japan), a particularly dangerous situation is once again emerging on and around the Korean peninsula. (For a detailed analysis of the South China Sea issue, see ‘US imperialism’s military aggression is the major factor behind South China Sea disputes’, Proletarian, August 2016.)
On 22 August, the annual joint US-south Korean military exercises known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) began in south Korea.
These military drills involve some 25,000 US military personnel, some 2,500 of them introduced from outside south Korea. They are joined by 75,000 troops from south Korea. At present, the US has 28,500 troops permanently stationed in south Korea.
The US-dominated UN Command Military Armistice Commission declared it had notified the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) military that the UFG exercises were “non-provocative”. However, this ridiculous assertion is at complete variance with the facts. Over the past five years especially, the Obama administration has repeatedly used exercises with south Korea to stage a menacing show of force and to threaten the DPRK and other states in the region.
Last November, the US and south Korea formally adopted a new military strategy, Operational Plan 5015 (OPLAN 5015), that is explicitly offensive in character. According to this plan, in a conflict with the DPRK, US and south Korean forces would make so-called “pre-emptive strikes” on key targets, including nuclear facilities, and carry out “decapitation” raids to assassinate high-level officials in acts of state terrorism, including the DPRK’s supreme leader Comrade Kim Jong Un.
OPLAN 5015 provides the framework not only for the UFG exercises, but also the Soaring Eagle military drill being carried out simultaneously by the south Korean air force, involving some 60 military aircraft and 530 troops. The south Korean media reported that their air force was practising to “pre-emptively remove the north’s ballistic missile threats by proactively blocking the missiles and their supply route”.
During last year’s UFG drill, the US exploited the situation to station nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers at its bases on Guam in the western Pacific.
The latest US-south Korean war games have not only been denounced by the DPRK but also by China.
In a commentary issued on 24 August, entitled ‘S. Korea-US war games to further escalate tension in Northeast Asia’, the Xinhua news agency noted that:
” The south Korean-US annual joint war games that kicked off on Monday will further escalate tension on the Korean peninsula and damage peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
“The joint annual war games, scheduled to run through next Friday, was claimed by the two allies to be defensive in nature but considered by Pyongyang as a dress rehearsal for northward invasion.”
The Xinhua commentary went on to note that: ” This year’s south Korea-US war games simulate a wartime joint response scenario, a doctrine that involves a US-south Korea pre-emptive strike against the DPRK, raising the possibility for military conflicts on the peninsula .”
It continued by highlighting the dangerous regional situation against which the US-south Korean war exercises are being held:
“ Northeast Asia has already witnessed heightened tension following an agreement between Seoul and Washington in July to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system in south Korea.
“The THAAD deployment may accelerate the DPRK’s efforts to develop its SLBM [submarine-launched ballistic missile] technology as THAAD’s X-band radar cannot detect and track ballistic missiles fired from a DPRK submarine that moves deep under the waters. [On 24 August, it was reported that the DPRK had indeed successfully test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine off its eastern coast, demonstrating, according to the south Korean military, ” a significant improvement in its efforts to build a harder-to-detect means to strike American and allied forces” -Ed.]
” Moreover, China and Russia are strongly opposed to the deployment of THAAD, as its radar can snoop on Chinese and Russian territories, breaking a strategic balance in the region and damaging the security interests of Beijing and Moscow .”
The formal declaration of the US-south Korean intention to deploy the THAAD missile defence system in south Korea by the end of 2017 came on 8 July, provoking open fury in Beijing.
What is THAAD?
THAAD consists of interceptor missiles and the AN/TPY-2 X-band radar system. It is designed to locate and knock out incoming missile attacks. But its real purpose is far from defensive. The United States’ plan is to use the system to prevent any Chinese counterattack hitting US military bases and other targets should Washington launch a nuclear first strike against China. In other words, under the pretext of countering a supposed threat from the DPRK, the US intention is to leave China (as well as the far east of Russia) helpless in the face of US nuclear blackmail.
The system is also connected to the Link 16 intelligence-sharing network, providing intelligence on troop and possible target movements in real-time. In January, Seoul announced it would join Link 16, which includes the US, Japan and Nato countries.
US imperialist bad faith
On 2 March this year, following another nuclear test by the DPRK, Washington succeeded in cajoling China and Russia into acquiescing to another round of stringent anti-DPRK sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. The Obama administration, in weeks of horse-trading, had threatened Beijing with unilateral sanctions that would penalise not only the DPRK but entities and businesses from other countries (which overwhelmingly means China) doing business with it, as well as a possible deployment of the THAAD system.
Having secured the UN resolution, perhaps not altogether surprisingly the US and its closest allies went on to introduce a range of further unilateral sanctions anyway and have now signalled their intention to go ahead with THAAD.
This finally drew the admission from the Chinese newspaper, Global Times, in an 11 August editorial, that the DPRK’s ” nuclear ambition was primarily triggered by long-standing military pressures imposed by south Korea and the US…The escalating pressures have [led to] bolder nuclear projects. China, being a well-intentioned and responsible mediator, has been paid back by a threatening advanced military system.”
For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that deploying THAAD would “undermine the existing strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond” and “have the most negative impact on global strategic stability, which Washington so likes to discuss a commitment to“.
Already, since the THAAD announcement, in the UN Security Council, China, supported by Russia, has blocked an attempt by the United States and its allies to censure Pyongyang further for a recent round of missile tests, with Beijing’s representative telling his US counterpart to his face that they had brought the problem on themselves.
In fact the THAAD deployment is already showing the potential to redraw drastically the geopolitical map of Northeast Asia – ironically in a way that is far from favourable to imperialism.
We are already seeing a considerable deterioration in the bilateral relations between China and south Korea, which had been growing steadily closer for years. Some time ago, China replaced the United States as south Korea’s largest trade partner. But, whilst its economic dependence on China grew, it remained, needless to say, utterly dependent on the USA in the military and security fields. Therefore, Beijing and Seoul might have been compared to an unlikely couple sharing the same bed but with very different dreams – whilst China hoped to use the attractions of its huge and buoyant economy to encourage south Korea to distance itself somewhat from the USA and play a more constructive role in the region, south Korea hoped to use its burgeoning economic ties to weaken the long-standing fraternal relations between the socialist allies, China and the DPRK.
Starting with the entertainment and cultural industries, but doubtless moving on from there, south Korea is now set to pay an economic price for its actions against China.
But the strategic implications go far beyond that. As Woo Jung Yeop, a research fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, a leading south Korean think tank, aptly put it, south Korea’s actions give the DPRK a chance to ” bring the Northeast Asian order back to the cold war period when China and Russia backed north Korea and did not have good relations with South Korea and Japan “.
A new cold war
A veritable deluge of official media commentary from China lends credence to Woo’s view.
On 29 July, Xinhua released a commentary entitled ‘New Cold War looms large in Northeast Asia as Seoul accepts THAAD’. The writer, Liu Chan, noted:
” A new Cold War is looming large in Northeast Asia as Washington insists on installing an anti-missile shield in south Korea, a provocative move that could further split the region, trigger a fresh arms race and crush hopes of denuclearising the Korean peninsula…
“The Obama administration claims the anti-missile shield could help defend south Korea against a potential security threat from its neighbour the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
“However, given the fact that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile shield is designed to intercept incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles at relatively higher altitudes, the DPRK needs only short-range rockets and conventional arms to launch devastating attacks on its southern neighbour, thereby rendering the shield as an ineffective deterrent.
“Furthermore, THAAD, which has a 200 km-range for intercepting missiles, is to be set up some 300 km southeast of Seoul in Seongju county, far from the border with the DPRK. That means the capital and the surrounding areas, the country’s most populated region, will not be protected.
“While Washington’s reasoning for the THAAD deployment is untenable, its self-serving motivation sticks out a mile.
“THAAD’s X-band radar is believed to have a detection range as far as 2,000 km in forward-based mode. Thus once placed in south Korea, the United States would be able to peer conveniently deep into China and Russia, imposing a grave threat to the security interests of the two countries and to regional peace.
“With Seoul agreeing to let THAAD in, a new arms race is well expected. If that were to happen, then regional countries will be sucked into a security dilemma and an unavoidable action-reaction cycle.
“Already, the Chinese defence ministry has confirmed recently that Beijing is testing its own anti-missile systems to ratchet up self-defence capabilities. The deployment would only encourage the DPRK to be even more adventurous, building more bombs and testing more missiles. As for the Russians, don’t expect Moscow to stand idle if its national interests are challenged.
“By strengthening its military posture and alliance in the region, Washington is producing two contentious camps on both sides of the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula, and diminishing any hope that the region’s nuclear issue can be solved diplomatically.
“For that, Washington and Seoul need to tread very carefully. Otherwise, the outcome of a misplaced decision could be too calamitous to overcom e.”
The next day, Xinhua writer Chen Shilei followed up with a commentary entitled, ‘Seoul should stop playing with fire by planning to deploy THAAD’. According to Chen:
” South Korea should stop playing with fire by hosting the US anti-missile system on its own soil, as the move will not only isolate itself but also undermine regional stability.
“Less than two weeks ago, south Korea and the United States reached the agreement to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) in the southern region of south Korea, despite continued opposition from neighbouring nations.
“Although the two countries claimed THAAD will not target any other third party but will be operated only in response to nuclear and missile threats from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the deployment is no doubt a key step in the US strategy of pivoting to Asia and will escalate tensions in Northeast Asia, especially on the Korean peninsula.
“It is believed that Seoul knows what the consequences of hosting THAAD are, but its siding with Washington for whatever reasons on THAAD shows its short-sightedness and poor diplomatic judgement…
“Escalating tensions on the peninsula will only shatter the Korean people’s dream of peace and reunification, which will be the bitterest legacy of the Park Geun Hye government and the biggest misfortune of the Korean people…
“The reason why Beijing and Moscow firmly reject the missile defence system is that with the shield’s X-band radar, Washington is able to peer conveniently into China and Russia, posing a grave threat to the security interests of the two countries and to regional peace…
“Seoul has yet to fully understand that accepting the deployment of a missile shield will only let south Korea become the frontline for possible strategic confrontation between the world’s major countries .”
On 4 August, Xinhua ran a further commentary under the heading ‘China, Russia will by no means compromise on their security interests’, which reads as follows:
” Both China and Russia oppose the planned deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system on the Korean peninsula, which endangers their national security and challenges the region’s strategic balance.
“The joint decision by the United States and south Korea is seen as part of a Washington-intended global anti-missile shield to serve US hegemony. The move, with the declared purpose of protecting south Korea from alleged missile and nuclear threats from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is no doubt intended for China and Russia.
“The THAAD system is useless against low-altitude missiles from the north, but its X-band radar could easily penetrate into the territories of China and Russia, which the United States considers the main challengers to its supremacy.
“Deployment of such an anti-missile system is expected to prompt countermeasures and an arms race with a new Cold War looming in the region. Russian analysts believe this is the most serious military provocation in years in Northeast Asia.
“Political trust could be unravelled, prosperous economic and trade ties could be destabilised and regional security could worsen.
“As the Korean peninsula plays an important role in the international geopolitical landscape, it is in the interests of China and Russia to maintain peace and stability there.
“The United States should not underestimate the determination of both countries to safeguard their strategic security interests. The two countries are coordinating closer than ever before, which will serve as a basis to face the THAAD challenge.
“For Washington, its devoted efforts towards a global anti-missile shield also reveals an anxiety over its declining influence in the world and a lack of confidence in keeping its territory safe. However, safeguarding its own security while putting other countries at risk is simply intolerable .”
Finally, for the purpose of this brief review, on 8 August, Xinhua carried a commentary by Luo Jun, entitled, ‘Seoul invites strategic catastrophe as THAAD threatens more than Pyongyang’. According to Luo:
” The south Korean government is either making a historic misjudgement, or is using it as a weak excuse, to state that the deployment of a US anti-missile system could pit Beijing against Pyongyang.
“Instead, the decision to deploy the anti-missile system will bring catastrophe to the Korean peninsula and destroy the hard-won political mutual trust and economic ties between Seoul and its neighbours in Northeast Asia.
“Trying to defend an unpopular decision to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in Seongju county, southeast of Seoul, a south Korean government spokesman on Sunday called China’s criticism unreasonable and shifted the blame to the ‘nuclear and missile threats’ from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
“However, Pyongyang’s proposals for a halt of military and nuclear activities on both sides have repeatedly met cold rejection from Washington and Seoul, which have stuck to frequent military exercises and flown nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the Korean peninsula, in a clear show of hostility against Pyongyang.
“Such measures were against the DPRK only. Now with the decision to deploy THAAD, which can snoop on vast territories in China and Russia, the United States and south Korea have alienated China and Russia with severe threats to their national security.
“It is unmistakably a strategic misjudgement for Seoul to violate the core interests of its two strong neighbours, at the cost of its own security, and only in the interests of American hegemony.
“The THAAD deployment is based on shaky grounds as it is incapable of intercepting Pyongyang’s short-range missiles, nor can it shield south Korea’s most populated city, Seoul, which is far away from Seongju county.
“However, the THAAD radar system’s strong spying capability means that its location will be among the first targets to be wiped out in case of conflict.
“By allowing the United States to deploy THAAD on its soil, the south Korean government has brought more danger than security to its people, and shut the door to peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.
“Now facing a common threat to their national security imposed by Washington and Seoul, China and Russia, along with other regional countries, will have little choice but to come closely together to address the issue. [In this context “other regional countries” can only refer above all to the DPRK – Ed.]
“Some analysts have pointed out that the only beneficiary of turmoil in Northeast Asia is the United States, as it relies on the ‘necessity’ of its military presence in the region to remain a hegemonic global power.
“If Seoul and Pyongyang gradually eased tension, Washington’s military presence in south Korea would be hard to justify. That is why Washington has often discouraged Seoul from talks with Pyongyang and insisted on war drills.
” South Korea needs to draw lessons from the disastrous results of conflicts in the Middle East and correct its strategic mistake of inviting THAAD, before it makes itself a powder keg in Northeast Asia.
“The future of the Korean peninsula lies in the constructive exchanges and common development of regional countries, with a goal of gradual reconciliation between Seoul and Pyongyang. Deploying THAAD is clearly a move toward the opposite direction .”
Popular opposition to THAAD
The firm opposition of Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow to THAAD is echoed by the broad mass of people in south Korea and all the democratic and progressive forces there.
In early August, four Members of Parliament from the opposition Minjoo (Democratic) Party of south Korea visited Beijing in an attempt to defuse tensions. For their pains, they were subjected to ferocious
attack from President Park Geun Hye and officials of her ruling Saenuri party. The MPs were accused of “sympathising with China” and of making ” absurd arguments that jibe with north Korea’s“. They were even labelled as “flunkies of China” – this charge is particularly ironic as, ever since she came to office, Park, rather than engaging in dialogue with compatriots in the north, has shamelessly travelled the world engaged in mendicant diplomacy designed to mobilise great and small powers alike against the DPRK.
The stand of the opposition parlia-mentarians is, however, in accord with a broad mass movement of students, trade unionists, environmental campaigners and others, who are organising against THAAD.
What is most noteworthy in this regard is the militant opposition of the people of Seongju to the proposed deployment of THAAD in their community. When Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn visited the county on 15 July, residents greeted him with a barrage of eggs and water bottles.
A crowd of around 3,000 surrounded a bus that Hwang had taken refuge in to escape the projectile eggs, saying they would not let him go until he promised to retract the decision. The standoff lasted for many hours.
The local people also blocked the entrance to the government compound, where Hwang was trapped, with a tractor as security guards struggled to keep them at bay.
It was the third consecutive day of protests in the town. “You bastard,” a protestor shouted, according to south Korea’s Yonhap news agency. “Why would you bring THAAD to Seongju?”
Indeed, by pushing ahead with the THAAD provocation against China and Russia, by their aggressive policies towards the DPRK, and by their arrogant and repressive treatment of the people in south Korea, US imperialism and their south Korean puppets can but strengthen the unity of China, Russia and the DPRK and can but incite the mass of people in south Korea to step up the anti-imperialist struggle for peace, democracy and national reunification. In a word, imperialism and its puppets are once again engaged in their time-honoured practice of lifting a rock only to drop it on their own feet.