July 2024

Flare-up on the Peninsula

 Yvonne Gill examines the ongoing tensions between the two Koreas, assessing how far the situation might escalate further

The Korean Peninsula, one of the world’s hotspots, is on the edge once again. Tensions between North and South have escalated dramatically in recent months. A series of provocative actions and harsh rhetoric emanating from both sides has heightened fears of a potential military confrontation, threatening the region’s fragile peace.

Seen against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the brutal Israeli campaign in Gaza, the world today sits atop one of the most explosive situations since World War II. But it is worse. As rival nations bristle with nuclear weapons, it has the potential to make any future large-scale war apocalyptic.

On June 26, North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a nuclear-capable multi-warhead missile that could overwhelm missile defences in the continental United States. South Korea and Japan. Experts, however, claimed that the missile blew up in its initial stage of flight. South Korea, the United States and Japan condemned the test as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The latest downturn in relations between the two neighbours began in late 2023, when North Korea launched its first military spy satellite. In response, South Korea partially suspended a 2018 military agreement aimed at reducing tensions along the border. North Korea then retaliated by withdrawing from the agreement entirely and rearming soldiers in previously unarmed areas along the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

North Korean propaganda and trash-filled balloons
HOT AIR: North Korea has been sending balloons filled with propaganda leaflets and trash across the border

The 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) had provided for dismantling of guard posts, a no-fly zone along the DMZ, cessation of live fire artillery drills, field exercises and maritime manoeuvres exercises along the borders in the East and West Sea. The CMA also banned firing of air-to-ground guided weapons within the designated no-fly zones in the eastern and western regions.

Defying UN curbs, North Korea again fired its most advanced long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in December last year.South Korean and Japanese officials said the missile travelled for 73 minutes, covering about 1,000 km.

This launch – the fifth ICBM launch in a row in 2023 – drew immediate condemnation from the West. Tensions ratcheted up in June this year, when South Korea accused North Korean soldiers of repeatedly crossing the border into the southern side of the DMZ, prompting warning shots from South Korean forces. North Korea denied the accusations and claimed the South was fabricating incidents.

South Korea, the US and Japan condemned the June 26 North Korean missile test as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions

Seoul said the incidents occurred when the North Korean soldiers crossed the Military Demarcation Line running through the middle of the DMZ. It is the third such incident in June, which took place in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Pyongyang visit.

‘After our military’s warning broadcasts and warning shots, the North Korean soldiers retreated back northwards,’ a South Korean military communique said.

North Korea has also been sending balloons filled with propaganda leaflets and trash across the border into South Korea – a tactic it had previously used but agreed to cease as part of the now-suspended 2018 CMA. Approximately 260 of these balloons have been found across eight locations, including the capital, Seoul, and Gyeongsang, according to South Korean sources.

In addition, North Korea stands accused of jamming GPS signals in waters near South Korea’s north-western border islands.

Growing competition between the US and China has further complicated efforts to pressurise North Korea to abandon the development of its nuclear capability

For its part, South Korea has decided to reinstall propaganda loudspeakers in the DMZ. The loudspeakers will broadcast K-pop songs, as well as messages about South Korea’s democracy, freedom of speech, development and economic prosperity, aimed at North Korean soldiers and residents near the border for whom democracy, freedom and prosperity are a distant dream.

On June 7, North Korea had test-fired several short-range ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast. The missiles flew about 300 kilometres before crashing between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, South Korean military sources said.

In response, a US Air Force B-1 bomber from the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, based in Guam, and two F-15K fighters from the Royal Korean Air Force, released live GBU-38, 500-pound joint direct-attack munitions, simultaneously striking multiple simulated targets.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has adopted a tough approach towards the North

‘The training marked the first time the B-1 has conducted a live munitions drop on the Korean peninsula since 2017 and offered the alliance its latest opportunity to prepare for combat to defend the Korean peninsula, cementing its combined defence posture and demonstrating extended deterrence,’ a USAF release said.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s visit to Pyongyang dramatically changes the region’s geopolitical landscape. Putin made his last visit to the country in 2000 for a meeting with Kim Jong-un’s late father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il. This time his meeting with the North Korean Supreme Leader has strengthened Kim’s position immensely. The two leaders signed the new strategic partnership to replace previous agreements signed in 1961, 2000 and 2001, reported TASS, the Russian state news agency.

‘The comprehensive partnership agreement signed today includes, among other things, the provision of mutual assistance in the event of aggression against one of the parties to this agreement,’ TASS quoted Putin as having stated.

Seen in the context of North Korea’s advancing military capabilities, this will embolden Kim to take a more aggressive stance, openly defying UN sanctions and international pressures. The growing competition between the US and China has further complicated efforts to pressurise North Korea to abandon the development of its nuclear capability.

Also, as South Korea under President Yoon Suk Yeolhas adopted a tough approach towards the North, emphasising deterrence and closer military cooperation with the US and Japan, dialogue between North Korea and the US is likely to remain stalled, eliminating any potential avenue for de-escalation in the near future. Concerns are growing that the situation could spiral out of control, potentially leading to armed conflict through miscalculation or unintended actions. The densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, home to roughly half of South Korea’s population, lies just 35 miles from the DMZ, making it highly vulnerable to North Korean artillery.

China, North Korea’s main ally and economic lifeline, has called for restraint on all sides and urged a return to dialogue. However, Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang appears to have waned in recent years, limiting its ability to rein in Kim Jong-un’s regime. The United Nations Security Council has held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation, but failed to agree on a joint statement due to opposition from China and Russia. This deadlock highlights the challenges of mounting an effective international response to North Korean provocations in the current geopolitical climate.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London