Government News Analysis

Second-guessing the Hermit

North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un

As the Hermit keeps the world on tenterhooks, pushing it into a state of uneasy suspense, Uncle Sam has warned him not to reach a tipping point. To do so, he says, would incur a storm to rain down on the Hermit land – a storm of “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. These are troubling times for the world – particularly the East Asian part of it. So in all of this, is there any real threat to the Philippines?

Most troubled by the Hermit Kingdom right now are South Korea and Japan, the two countries in the immediate firing line of any aggression from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) – and China, caught between a rock and a hard place as it attempts to manage the Hermit and maintain a precarious geopolitical balance of the Korean peninsula.

New tensions were sparked at the weekend following North Korea’s test firing of what it claimed was a powerful hydrogen bomb – a “two-stage thermonuclear weapon of unprecedented strength”. Based on the magnitude-6.3 earthquake which the explosion triggered, its estimated that the blast yield from that test – set off from a DPRK test site at Punggye-ri, 635 kilometres north east of the capital, Pyongyang – packed a belt of 100 kilotons; the equivalent of 100,000 tons of TNT.

If that’s true – and given the seismological evidence there’s no reason to doubt it – that test considerably raised the ante in a bizarre game of Russian roulette in which each player is holding a fully loaded gun of live rounds to the head of the other. And no-one’s looking to blink first.

At the moment though, everything’s based on hypotheses, ‘best-guesses’ and summation. No one knows for sure how far North Korean Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un (photo), will take his aggression. By the same token, no one knows for sure how far US President Donald Trump will go to fulfill his promise to the Hermit.

So, to put it mildly, it’s a very tricky stand-off. The question is, if there was to be a conflagration between the US and North Korea, given the distance limitations of the DPRK’s missile arsenal, how much of the East Asia region would become embroiled in that conflict?

The first thing to appreciate is that Pyongyang’s main target is America. It loathes the place and everything it represents. First and foremost, it resents America for dividing the country into two Koreas following the 1950-53 Korean War – an unfinished war as far as the Hermit’s concerned.

But it also holds very strong contempt for Japan which annexed the country in 1910 giving the Japanese Emperor sovereignty over Korea for the next 35 years. Tensions also still persist over an estimated 200,000 Korean comfort women sent to work in brothels run by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War. Furthermore, while Japan has good relations with South Korea, it refuses to acknowledge North Korea as a legitimate state.

According to all available intelligence, however, the Supreme Leader has nothing in his nuclear arsenal that could remotely reach the US mainland. He does, however, have missiles capable of reaching South Korea and Japan. The Musudan, the DPRK’s intermediate-range ballistic missile, can travel 3,500 kilometres – putting both countries well within range and making them the most likely proxy battlegrounds for any US-North Korea conflict.

And the reason that’s an option – apart from the bitter history – is that those two countries are not just supportive of the US, they house American military facilities and American troops. In fact, those resources are there largely to breath down North Korea’s neck – they always have been. Therefore, as far as the Hermit’s concerned, they’re part of America; they’re as American as Disneyland.

So if Kim can’t strike Los Angeles, he can certainly strike the naval installations of the US Seventh Fleet spread across Japan and South Korea. He can also reach Guam, a US territory in Micronesia in the Western Pacific Ocean. Home to three US Navy bases and one US Air Force base Guam’s the closest thing to American soil in the neighbourhood.

That reasoning, however, could also drag the Philippines into the conflict. It too accommodates US military capabilities on its soil and around its shoreline. Under any normal war plan it’s not likely that the Philippines would be a North Korean target. However, in the event of a full-blown US-NK conflict, that could change given the US bases presence in the Philippines under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement – plus the regular use of Subic Bay on the northern island of Luzon as a re-supply port for US warships.

Furthermore, the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the US, automatically makes the Philippines a US ally in any conflict where the US is being attacked by an external party. Thus, if North Korea hits US naval installations in Okinawa, for example, the US could – and would – invoke the terms of the MDT.

The fact is though, if the DPRK goes on a war footing, all US allies could become legitimate targets for Pyongyang. And the Philippines – despite recent rifts with Washington during the presidency of Barack Obama, and despite its closeness to China – could be viewed in much the same way as South Korea and Japan are right now.

Although relations between the two countries aren’t particularly warm, there’s never been any serious animosity between them since the Korean War when the Philippines sided with the South sending an expeditionary force of around 1,500 troops – the fifth largest force under the United Nations Command – which fought alongside a number of US infantry divisions.

More recently, however – as a result of Kim’s saber-rattling; his missile tests and threats – Philippine-North Korea relations have become more strained.

In March last year the Philippines impounded two North Korean ships, the Jin Teng and the Theresa Begonia, in compliance with UN sanctions. They were thought to be carrying explosives, weapons or other banned substances, though none were found when the ships were searched by officers of the Philippine Coast Guard.

President Rodrigo Duterte also hasn’t been restrained where Kim Jong-un is concerned. In August, on the eve of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, attended by foreign ministers from Japan, South Korea – and North Korea – among others, he described the North Korean leader as a fool. This is what he said: “He is playing with dangerous toys; that fool. That chubby face that looks kind, that son of a bitch, if he commits a mistake the Far East will become an arid land. It must be stopped, this nuclear war”.

Following North Korea’s latest missile test, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, called on Pyongyang to seek a negotiated solution to the impasse over its nuclear programme. He referred to that test – and the five others that preceded it – as provocative actions that undermine regional peace and stability.

Under no illusion about the gravity of what took place at Punggye-ri at the weekend, he said this: “Aside from flouting all of its commitments under relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions, this test limits our available options for meaningful dialogue to address the real issues confronting the Korean Peninsula”.

Negotiations with North Korea in the past never made any headway. The Six Party Talks – with representatives from China, Japan, Russia, the United States, as well as both North and South Korea – ran intermittently from 2003 to 2009 when North Korea finally pulled out for good.

But involved in those ‘negotiations’ was South Korean-American diplomat, Sung Kim, the current US Ambassador to the Philippines. A former US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, he was the US Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks. If anyone in Manila has an inside track to North Korean thinking, it’s him. And no doubt Cayetano has tapped into that source of information.

Diplomatic relations between Manila and Pyongyang are in their infancy. They were finally established in 2000 – after two decades of niggling negotiations. And since then there have been a number of soft attempts to bring both sides closer together.

In 2015, for example, the Korea-Philippine Friendship Society invited Duterte, then Davao City mayor, to attend the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the DPRK’s perpetually governing party of which Kim is chairman. It also suggested a twinning or sisterhood agreement between the North Korean port city of Nampho, 50km southwest of the capital, and Davao City.

The fact is though, the Philippines is an extremely close ally of both Japan and South Korea. Last year, 20.7% of all Philippine exports went to Japan while South Korea, another major trading partner, supplied 27.4% of all tourists to the archipelago. Both these countries are also major investors in the Philippines. Furthermore cultural ties with each of them are deep and long standing – and they will not be split by a bellicose and belligerent North Korea.

Thus, given all that, the Philippines would stand with its East Asian friends – and with the US for that matter – if Kim decides to pursue his military adventures against any of them.

Is it likely then that Kim’s Korea would seek to engage the Philippines in a regional war? Virtually the whole of the archipelago falls within the firing range of the Musudan – it might drop a dozen or so kilometres short of Davao City in the south of the southern island of Mindanao, but the rest of the country, more or less, is well within its distance.

With the reservation that no-one knows what the DPRK’s Supreme Leader is capable of, however, the only real chance of that happening would seem to be in the event of a drawn-out conflict. And all the intelligence and military modeling to this point indicates that any conflict that kicks off will end with a sharp swift resolution. In other words, the chances of a region-wide fallout are slim.

That said, according to the Philippine Embassy in Seoul, there are 65,000 Filipinos living and working in South Korea. In Japan, the number’s bigger. In June 2016, the Japanese Justice Ministry reported there were 237,103 Overseas Filipino Workers in the country, forming Japan’s third-largest ex-pat group. In Guam, Filipinos make up more than a quarter of the island’s population. According to a 2010 US census there were 41,944 of them there.

The ball though is now in the Hermit’s court and the Supreme Leader must decide how he wants to play it. Trade sanctions have already been tightened in response to how he’s been ‘playing with his toys’ so far. Should he lob one of those toys out of his pram and strike a US ally, however, Trump will make him a gift of a few of his toys. All that, of course, will be regrettable; but at that stage, in the interests of regional peace and stability, it’s hard to see what the alternative could be.

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