Against the backdrop of the 'largest ever' joint exercises being held by US and South Korean forces, Pyongyang has ramped up its rhetoric about 'pre-emptive retaliatory attacks', and vowed more nuclear tests. What can Russia do about the situation on its southeastern borders? Journalist Pavel Ryzhevsky ponders the question.
Over the weekend, North Korea warned that it could use the hydrogen bomb in its possession to vaporize Manhattan. The dubious statement follows on an earlier announcement that the North Korean military has been prepared for 'a preemptive retaliatory strike' against US and South Korean troops participating in military drills in South Korea, were Pyongyang's enemies to attempt to launch an invasion of North Korea under the pretext of exercises.
Last week, US and South Korean forces began the 'largest ever' simultaneous joint military drills on the Korean peninsula, involving over 317,000 troops, and supposedly 'aimed at countering North Korean aggression'. Washington and Seoul have claimed that the scaling up of the annual drills, which are scheduled to run for eight weeks into April, is a response to North Korea's nuclear and long-range rocket testing earlier this year.
Commenting on the tense situation in an op-ed article for PolitRussia, independent journalist Pavel Ryzhevsky offered his views on Moscow's interests in the region.
For openers, Ryzhevsky noted, "the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council will not affect Pyongyang's policy in any way." The country's leaders, he noted, will continue to carry the policies which they see as necessary to ensuring the country's national security, dangerous as they may seem to the rest of the world.
"The creation of nuclear weapons, threats of preemptive nuclear strikes, the modernization of missiles and their testing in the Sea of Japan – all of these facts have forced some [Russians] to look at their North Korean neighbors with apprehension. Others, on the contrary, look on with admiration – for what other world leader is ready to stand up so directly to the US and tell Washington exactly what he thinks about them?"
"Recently," Ryzhevsky continued, "the situation on the peninsula has escalated dramatically. The presence of US military bases in South Korea, and the South Korean-US joint exercises are considered by Pyongyang as acts of provocation." And in a situation of constant pressure, he added, it is not inconceivable that North Korea's leaders genuinely feel that they are being "forced to respond in ways that may seem by some to be too radical."
In any case, the journalist noted, even if North Korea's leaders really do burn with a desire to unify Korea by force, the truth is that an open conflict is highly unlikely. "North Korea is a small but proud nation, and amid all its military rhetoric and military power, it cannot compete with the United States." In this situation, there is only one response: nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them in case of attack.
"This serves as a kind of guarantee for the regime in Pyongyang of protection against all sorts of attempts at external interference, of 'color revolutions' and everything else that has already been demonstrated in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and the Middle East."
As for the US, the journalist noted that Washington too does not need a 'hot war' on the peninsula. "They prefer the current situation, and their presence in the Sea of Japan and in South Korea. After all, it's not far from here to our Far Eastern territories, at which it is possible to aim all kinds of weapons. The US's military presence in the region kills two birds with one stone: assisting its South Korean allies, and holding the Russian Far East at gunpoint."
How should Russia respond? According to Ryzhevsky, "not just our common border with North Korea, but also our role as a leading international player means we cannot remain indifferent to events on the Korean peninsula. Yes, our country has signed on to the UN sanctions against North Korea, but in general, our policy toward Pyongyang should remain neutral. We must not openly support the DPRK, causing a new row in relations [with the West]."
"But it is essential to call on Washington to abandon its provocations – and attempts to pressure Pyongyang through numerous military exercises in the Sea of Japan."
Russia, the journalist notes, cannot support the DPRK, "but it can guarantee its independence, and speak out on the inadmissibility of interference in the country's internal affairs by other countries – this is something that our country can and should formally articulate."
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