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Trouble in the DMZ

By Benjamin Sachs



Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been on the rise recently. 


North Koreans this month claimed to have tested the Haeil-5-23. They claim that this is an underwater robotic weapon, capable of supporting nuclear weapons. According to North Korean propaganda this weapon could release a ‘radioactive tsunami wave’ which could destroy ports or naval task groups (In fact, Haeil literally means ‘tsunami’). 


This should be taken with more than a grain of salt. Some nations do have similar nuclear weapons to the one described by the North Koreans - such as Russians’ ‘Poseidon’ weapon. However, North Korea has a habit of exaggerating the power of their weapons. And even if these claims were true, this weapon would actually be considered less significant than others in North Korea’s arsenal. 


This test comes in the context of rising military tensions on the peninsula. Last year, the North Koreans launched a spy satellite (it is unclear whether it actually works) and fired some 200 shells at Yeonpyeong island. South Korea in response ended a military agreement under which they had promised to limit surveillance flights near the Demilitarised Zone (which is actually one of the most militarised places on the planet). The South Korean, Japanese and American navies also held a joint training operation. 


The diplomatic front has also deteriorated as much of the progress made in the late 2010s has been undone. In a speech Kim Jung-Un officially redesignated the South as a ‘permanent’ enemy and hostile state. South Korea has also withdrawn from some of the inter-Korean agencies dedicated to enhancing trade, cooperation and dialogue.


So what is the ultimate reason for these tensions? Many analysts have described a pattern of cyclical relations existing on the Korean peninsula. The Kim regime is perpetually fighting to survive, its centrally-planned and isolated economy verges on collapse. Many North Koreans actually rely on the black market. Meanwhile the regime funds itself with a mix of questionable activities, such as selling weapons to dangerous groups and exploiting the wages of North Korean workers abroad. This puts the regime in a precarious position. 


North Korea deals with this by using the threat of a catastrophic war. Many analysts believe in such a war North Korea would use nuclear weapons on the South. North Korea also has a significant stock of chemical and biological weapons, as well as a large conventional army. 

This is highly threatening to the South and America. As such the North is able to survive by extracting concessions. This is usually followed by a superficial improvement in relations (Think Trump and Kim Jung-Un shaking hands). But any diplomatic progress is soon forgotten once the North needs more. 


In this context the North’s actions make sense. South Korea goes to the polls in April for parliamentary elections, whilst America has its presidential elections in November. American attention is also spread thin in between the Ukraine war and the war in Gaza. This is an opportune moment for the North to stir trouble. 


But this balancing act is a dangerous one. With less dialogue and communication between North and South misunderstanding and escalation can occur. ‘The Diplomat’ in a recent article noted how calculations can change. South Korean analysts are more worried about a North Korean attack due to their development of tactical nuclear weapons which could be used in a possible ‘decapitation strike’ on the South. 


War remains unlikely, the North has avoided going to war for more than 70 years out of fear of what that would entail. In conventional military terms, the South arguably has a more modern and effective army than the North. Additionally, in any conflict America would almost certainly join, whilst China would not approve of any North Korean aggression. So don’t start building your bunker quite yet. 


Nonetheless, recent events have shown how high the stakes are on the peninsula. Peace here is only a few minutes away from ending at any moment. Both sides are playing a high stakes game of poker with the lives of millions - let’s hope they are just bluffing.


Image: Flickr / Province of British Columbia

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