According to Alexander Vorontsov, the attitude, possibly even expectation, that the North Koreans pose: “only one question remains: when will war break out?” In his article in 38 North, Vorontsov points out that the US saber-rattling has gotten the attention of the NORKs: the recent US Navy training exercise with three carrier strike groups in Korea’s East Sea and the recent US-South Korea air exercise which featured 230 aircraft, including many Stealth varieties are apparently seen as training steps for an incremental military operation. Indeed, the last time the US held a training exercise with three carriers was in 2007 – and the last time the US trained with three carriers off of Korea was 1969! The Korean peninsula obviously does not provide the opportunity for a military buildup as Saudi Arabia did in the wars the US has recently conducted in the Middle East. Should the US engage in a similar type of build up, not only would the entire world notice but the Hermit Kingdom would most likely see this as an invitation to launch their own preemptive strikes – as Vorontsov claims in his article. So, not surprisingly, these large training exercises – in lieu of a Middle East style military buildup – can certainly be seen as incremental steps as a prelude to a first strike, not dissimilar to the first strike the US took in its attempt to take out Saddam Hussein in the 2003 attack on Iraq.
The view from the South is likewise, equally sobering. Uri Friedman has an excellent article here based on his interviews with Senator Tammy Duckworth and Congressman Ruben Gallego, both of whom recently returned from a trip to South Korea – and both noted that the US military in South Korea is “beyond the training stage. They’re at the getting ready for operational readiness state, with—and I heard this time and time again—hope that they never have to” fight.” Moreover, both Duckworth – a retired Lt. Colonel – and Gallego fought in Iraq and both seemed to reach the same sobering assessment of the situation in South Korea. Indeed, as Sen Duckworth noted, it’s not just the US that is ratcheting things up: “all three of the major military actors—American, Korean, and Japanese—…more ready [for war] than they’ve ever been.” While Duckworth noted that the drum beats are not booming, they are growing louder. General Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, recently spoke at the Center for Strategic & International Studies and indicated that the US has done some logistical preparation that’s just prudent and has explored some “force deployment options” to “convey to the “other side” that “you really don’t want to do this.” (all quotes taken from Friedman’s article)
As Neller alludes, the US goal is to demonstrate to Pyonyang that its allies are very much united in their stance towards the Hermit Kingdom and that they are prepared to meet the ultimate challenge the North could throw at them. It’s a strategic dance that has many parallels throughout history – former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles referred to it as brinkmanship. In this game of brinkmanship, it’s crucial that both sides have the same expectation as to where the brink lies – a miscalculation by either side could be catastrophic. In this case, I suspect that the brink might not be the same for both parties.