As South Korea Proceeds With Joint US Military Exercises, North Korea Vows Retaliation

The latest Korean escalation continues to refuse to be relegated to the annals of history. Various demonstrations on Saturday in the two countries confirmed that people on both sides of the the DMZ are demanding far more than just rhetorical placation. And now that the USS George Washington has symbolically entered the fray, the escalation has become about far more than just Korean nationalist pride, but is about Chinese and US spheres of influence. Which is precisely why most were speculating that a reversion to the mean was imminent: after all neither China, nor the US would benefit from a regional conflict. However as the AP reports, events may soon be spiralling out of control: "As protesters in Seoul demanded their government take sterner action against North Korea, the North issued new warnings against the war games scheduled to start Sunday with a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea. The North called the games an "unpardonable provocation" and warning of retaliatory attacks creating a "sea of fire" if its own territory is violated. The comments ran on North Korea's state-run Uriminzokkiri website a day after the North's warnings that the peninsula was on the "brink of war." China, under pressure from the U.S. and South Korea to rein in its ally Pyongyang, urged both sides to show restraint while Washington played down the belligerent rhetoric, noting that the weekend war games were routine and planned well before last week's attack." That said - there is probably no reason to worry.... After all now Hillary Clinton is involved.

"The pressing task now is to put the situation under control and prevent a recurrence of similar incidents," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by phone, according to the ministry's website.

Or not: contrary to repeated warnings that joint military exercises will only further antagonize the locals and certainly bring the situation to the brink of war, we now read that "South Korea has warned its army to be on guard for further attacks from Pyongyang ahead of joint military exercises between the US and Seoul." At this point the conventional wisdom is that North Korea is acting like a rabid dog (which as has recently been disclosed has nuclear capabilities). Yet the US continues to provoke it. In the global game theory game, who is therefore to blame?

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told ministers and aides to be ready for "provocation" by the North - and the country's Marine commander vowed "thousand-fold" revenge for the attacks this week that killed two servicemen and two civilians.

The US and Seoul will begin joint exercises on Sunday in the Yellow Sea.

North Korea said any civilian deaths were "very regrettable" but accused South Korea of using members of the public as a human shield.

It also said the US should be blamed for "orchestrating" the whole sequence of events to justify sending in a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to join the military exercises.

"If the US brings its carrier to the West Sea of Korea at last, no one can predict the ensuing consequences," North Korea's KCNA news agency said.

North Korea has warned it will continue to launch attacks if the South violates its disputed sea border.

China says it is determined to prevent an escalation of the violence but warned against military acts near its coast.

Since festivities will continue well through the night on Sunday (EDT), look for geopolitical risk to be well bid heading into Monday morning.

Below is a more exhaustive analysis of the geopolitic of the region via Stratfor.

U.S. Carrier Strike Group Embarks for the Yellow Sea

Summary

Just as both sides seemed to be nearing a resumption of talks, North Korea shelled South Korean positions on an island in disputed western waters, and a U.S. carrier strike group was dispatched to the Yellow Sea for exercises with South Korean forces. Since the sinking of the South Korean ChonAn in March, the United States had said it would deploy the USS George Washington to the Yellow Sea but had balked, in part because of objections from China. Now that North Korea has ratcheted up tensions again, Washington is sending a message to Beijing as well as Pyongyang: Rein in North Korea in order to better manage relations with the United States.

Analysis

U.S. Forces Korea announced Nov. 24 that the USS George Washington carrier strike group (CVN 73) left Yokohama, Japan, on Nov. 24 to join South Korean forces for naval exercises Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in the Yellow Sea/West Sea. The group includes the guided missile cruisers USS Cowpens (CG 63) and USS Shiloh (CG 67) as well as the guided missile destroyers USS Stethem (DDG 63) and USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62), and it may also include a nuclear-powered attack submarine

The announcement comes one day after North Korea fired artillery at Yeonpyeong Island, which lies in disputed waters off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula, killing two South Korean soldiers and two civilians and damaging property. The United States had previously committed to sending the carrier to participate in the Yellow Sea exercises as a show of strength following the March sinking of the ChonAn (772), a South Korean naval corvette, and had formally maintained its intention to do so in the months since.

But the United States wavered in part due to objections from China, which raised an outcry this summer about exercises so close to its political capital and heartland. Instead, the United States opted to send the carrier to participate in drills in the Sea of Japan, on the opposite side of the Korean Peninsula from China, and continually delayed posting the carrier group to the Yellow Sea. The U.S. hesitations gave rise to considerable doubt in South Korea about the American commitment to the alliance and drew attention across the region as the United States seemed to balk in response to China’s bold diplomatic stand.

Military Drills and Six-Party Talks

Before the North Korean artillery attack on Nov. 23, the United States still seemed hesitant to undertake military drills with South Korea that could upset regional sensitivities. At essentially the last minute, Washington backed out of participating in South Korea’s Hoguk Exercise, which began Nov. 21 and which North Korea blamed in part for its attack on Yeonpyeong Island. The exercise would have involved sending U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa, Japan, to stage a mock amphibious invasion of a small South Korean island, and while U.S. intentions were not clear, the United States may have resisted such a drill at a time when tensions throughout the region had intensified over island sovereignty. Japan was calling for a similar drill as a way to send a message to China over their island disputes (and holding amphibious exercises with South Korea may have obligated the United States to do the same with Japan, likely to the detriment of relations with China).

Also prior to the artillery attack, it seemed that all parties involved on the Korean Peninsula were moving closer to a resumption of international talks. China began campaigning to resume six-party talks on denuclearization back in September. Though the United States and its allies had not committed to new talks, setting a prerequisite that North Korea take “concrete steps” to show its sincerity, there were numerous diplomatic meetings between the players and an opening for inter-Korean negotiations. Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special envoy on the Korean nuclear issue, is currently on an Asian tour for just such a purpose. Even North Korea’s revelation of its ongoing uranium enrichment activities to a visiting American scientist last week was a signal that talks could resume (the information was couched in North Korean comments that it was willing to trade away at least one of its nuclear programs, possibly both, if the United States would give it new assurances). And while the outcome would not likely have been the end of all North Korean nuclear activity, it may well have served to give momentum to a new round of talks.

The Yeonpyeongdo Attack

All of this was upended, however, when North Korea upped the ante by shelling Yeonpyeongdo. North Korea often springs a surprise on the world before negotiations, and over the past two decades this has been a fairly predictable method of winning initiative in talks. But the latest action, coupled with the ChonAn sinking, pushes the envelope further. It could still fall within the same rubric, with Pyongyang seeking to get a better position in negotiations or to insist that the United States join it in direct talks. But it also raises the question whether North Korea is trying to do something completely different or even whether it is losing a degree of internal control amid its ongoing power transition.

Either way, the United States has decided that it must now demonstrate to the world, without equivocation, that it is committed to its alliance with South Korea. This demonstration has begun by sending the George Washington to the region for exercises in the Yellow Sea, but it will undoubtedly involve other actions to bolster the alliance and the U.S. military presence in the region (for instance, the George Washington will also participate in annual exercises with the Japanese in December, which the Japanese still claim will focus on the theme of defending the islands against invasion, a veiled signal to China). This is not the first time the United States has sent carriers to the area for drills, but Beijing’s resistance to the idea throughout the year has made it a more controversial action. Now the United States believes it must send the strike group to maintain credibility in the region, not only for South Korea but for its other allies as well, and to deter its opponents. It simply cannot afford to lose credibility by not supporting allies when they are attacked. Moreover, it cannot afford to be seen as backing down due to Chinese pressure.

China’s Options

In particular, the United States is sending a message to China to rein in North Korea. China is by far the largest economic and military partner of North Korea, last year providing about 79 percent of the North’s total foreign investment, 90 percent of its crude oil and 80 percent of its consumer goods. China also sells arms to North Korea and offers irreplaceable political and diplomatic assistance to Pyongyang for its confrontations with the outside world. China was able to stymie any attempt to force a meaningful response to the ChonAn incident, has shot down the idea of new U.N. sanctions, and has deflected pressure and criticism of the North Korean regime on numerous occasions.

But while China will bluster in reaction to the U.S. carrier exercises and other U.S. moves to solidify the alliance, there are limitations on its actions following North Korea’s unpredictable attack. China will have difficulty plausibly denying North Korean culpability this time, as it managed to do with the ChonAn (where very little evidence was recovered from the wreckage, and China could get away with claiming the international investigation team was biased). However, China has already emphasized that the North Koreans claim their artillery barrage was a response to shells that landed in their territorial waters during South Korean military exercises, and Russia has said that military drills by South Korea and its allies (i.e., the United States) are destabilizing the region. Nevertheless, seeing that North Korea’s actions will inevitably elicit a U.S. response, China has the option of demonstrating its sway over North Korea in order to work with the United States and retain some ability to shape the U.S. response. Otherwise it risks provoking the United States and losing control over when, where and how the United States decides to respond.

All of this comes at an awkward time, with both the United States and China striving to smooth over disagreements ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington in January. Because Beijing will have difficulty abetting Pyongyang in this latest incident, it may well become a test of Beijing’s willingness to practice a bolder foreign policy in relation to the United States and other outside powers.