by Mai Hien
The eyes of the world are on the developing tension on the Korean Peninsula. Tension is high after North Korea delivered a series of threats against South Korea and the United States, especially after the two countries renewed military exercises off South Korea.
The threats, including one to hit Washington with a nuclear bomb,were met by tough responses from Seoul and Washington. This triggered international concern that war was looming.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday warned that the crisis could spiral out of control and called on the relevant parties to show restraint. "The threat of nuclear war is no joke," he is reported to have said.
"The current crisis has already gone too far. Things must begin to calm down," Ban added.
Ban's statement followed North Korea's decision to restart operations at Yongbyon nuclear complex, which was shut down in 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord.
The reason for the re-opening of operations was, according to a spokesman for North Korea's General Department of Atomic Energy, to overcome the nation's electricity shortage and boost nuclear armed forces.
This was seen as the latest in a string of threats from Pyongyang. On March 30, North Korea said it had entered a "state of war" with South Korea, adding that all matters between the divided nations would be handled according to wartime conditions.
"The long-standing condition of the Korean peninsula of being neither at peace nor war is finally over," said a statement from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Technically, the two nations have remained at war since the the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. The North declared the armistice void earlier in March.
North Korea threatened a "pre-emptive" nuclear strike against the US a month ago. Last week, the top leader, Kim Jong-un, put his nation's strategic rocket units on full combat status for strikes on the US mainland and US bases in Guam and Hawaii.
And the KCNA reported again yesterday that North Korea had given "final approval" for nuclear attack on the US. North Korea's warnings followed UN sanctions issued after a nuclear weapons test on February 12 – and to the US-South Korea military exercises.
North Korea has always opposed the exercises that the US and South Korea have designed to "increase alliance readiness, protect the region and maintain stability on the Korean peninsula". They consider them a threat to its security.
Tensions soared after the US sent B-52 strategic heavy bombers and B-2 stealth bombers to South Korea to participate in the war games.
Both South Korea and the US have adopted a tough stance in responding to the warnings from Pyongyang. South Korean President Park Geun-hye promised a strong military response to any provocation. The South would carry out pre-emptive strikes against the North's nuclear and missiles facilities in the event of hostilities breaking out, South Korea's Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin said.
And, on Tuesday, the US vowed to defend itself and its regional allies. "Let me be perfectly clear here today. The US will defend and protect ourselves and our treaty ally, the Republic of Korea," US Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted as saying at a meeting with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se.
US defence officials said that the US had dispatched two Aegis destroyers – the Decatur and the McCain – in the Western Pacific to prepare for possible missiles launched from North Korea.
China has also started mobilising military forces around Korea as tensions rise. According to US officials, the process has been going on since mid-March, and includes troop movements and the movement of fighter jets.
Despite the tit-for-tat actions, analysts believe an all-out of war is unlikely because the nations involved have to consider its effect. This is not the first time that the Korean Peninsula has faced a renewed threat of war. In 1994, North Korea declared it would turn Soul into a "sea of fire", which prompted people to accumulate food in case war broke out.
After US President George W Bush labelled North Korea as part of the "axis of evil" in 2002, Pyongyang said it would "mercilessly wipe out the aggressors".
Tran Viet Thai, from the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, the Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam, said the risk of a low intensity military clash is quite likely. "However, at the strategic level, I think, war is unlikely to break out as any strategic error could lead to all-out war and do harm to all parties concerned," he added.
He warned that if war did start, there would be no winners and losers. "For North Korea, its target is to maintain its political system and become recognised as a nuclear state. For the US and its allies, it is to insure the maintenance of a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons and under their control," Thai said.
Even if North Korea decides not to wage real war, a miscalculation could cause the crisis to spiral out of control. Russia and China, the two countries that have been involved in six-party talks on dealing with North Korea's nuclear programme, have expressed concern over the situation in the peninsula and urged all sides not to take provocative action.
"We hope all parties look at the long term, engage in dialogue and improve their relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regular briefing.
As UN Secretary General Ban said: "Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counter-actions, and fuel fear and instability." — VNS