Tensions on the Korean peninsula have continued trending upward in recent days. North Korean missile tests and artillery exercises conducted in response to US/ROK military exercises currently underway have set off warning alarms in the capitals of South Korean, Japan and the United States. North Korea’s increasingly overt material support for Russia’s war in Ukraine is now attracting a growing amount of attention from the rest of the world. Opinion on North Korea’s long-term goal is divided between two camps. One cross-section of diplomats, politicians, journalists and analysts believes the North’s actions are intended lead up to a nuclear test at some point in the near future. A second group is equally convinced Kim Jong Un is simply biding his time and testing the waters, so to speak. When the time is right, he will order a ballistic missile test with a Hwasong-17 ICBM and follow it up with a nuclear test.
Both theories hold water, although a series of variables are coming into play which could affect timing of a nuclear test by the North, from China’s rising COVID-19 infection rate to the war in Ukraine, and even perhaps the results of today’s US elections. At the end of the day however, it could simply come down to the whim of North Korea’s leader. Whenever he feels the time is right, he’ll move. Regardless of what is taking place in other parts of the world.
There has been some discussion on North Korea’s arms shipments to Russia, and whether or not they are in violation of the sanctions currently in place against the North. Even if a violation has occurred, there is little the UN can do about it. China and Russia are permanent UN Security Council members and will run interference to prevent further sanctions from impacting North Korea.
In the last few months as the Western Pacific has heated up and fighting in Ukraine continues, a number of prominent Western geopolitical and defense analysts, along with an equal number of their less-than-prominent OSINT counterparts have attempted to take a number of lessons learned in the Russia-Ukraine War and transfer them to the deteriorating situation in the Western Pacific. More precisely, onto China’s rise and recent shift to aggressive posturing as well as onto a hypothetical China-Taiwan conflict in the near future.
Geopolitically speaking, China in the Western Pacific and Russia/Ukraine are two completely different animals that share few similar parts. This is clear from the first comparison and has been discussed to death here, in academic IR journals and in government reports from around the world. There’s no point beating a dead horse, so to speak. However, there are other geopolitical aspects where the similarities and difference between the Western Pacific and Ukraine are not as clear, leaving them open to interpretation and theory from professionals and amateurs alike. This is the area that the geopolitical crowd has identified as best suited to take Russia/Ukraine lessons and transfer them to China/WestPac. A practice that’s become akin to fitting a round peg in a square hole.
On the military side of the equation the game is similar. Analysts and OSINT ‘experts’ are trying desperately to evaluate the lessons being learned in the Russia-Ukraine War and break them down to fit a hypothetical China-Taiwan conflict or China-US Great Power conflict taking place at some point in the next twelve months. In this area the differences between amateur and professional is unequivocal. On one hand, the professionals have a dearth of knowledge as well as experience to draw from when putting together a plausible model to support their theories. The amateurs (OSINT) are starved for experience and formal education of military matters. Most of these folks are veterans and knowledgeable in their respective fields, such as infantry or cyberwarfare. Their inability or reluctance to contextualize tactical lessons and apply their value to the strategic picture ends up being their undoing in many instances.
In spite of the disparities between professional defense analysts and their OSINT counterparts, they share a common quirk. A startling number of people from each group have found themselves caught up in the moment, so to speak, and issuing bold prognostications about the future of warfare with conclusions reliant almost entirely upon the latest news releases from the Ukrainian battlefield. Irresponsible behavior at best, simple laziness at worst. Especially when one remembers that in the first months of the war, Western media outlets were receiving their information directly from the Ukrainian government and military and often reporting it word for word. The kill numbers being reported, in both men and material, were significantly inflated, as initial numbers usually are. Fog of war and all of that.
I intend to delve into some of the geopolitical and military lessons from Ukraine that are being translated both properly and improperly for use in the Western Pacific in the coming month. I’d give a more accurate timeline for when these posts will be published, but as many readers are aware, this act usually backfires on me. This time I’ll play it safe 😊 Besides, with the unstable and uncertain world we’re dealing with at present it’s probably best not to commit to a firm schedule. Lord only knows what crisis will pop up next, or where.
COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in the People’s Republic of China and providing an early test of Xi Jinping’s Zero-COVID doctrine in the aftermath of Xi capturing a third term in power. There was hope the Chinese leader would lighten the restrictive Zero-COVID policies in the recent CCP congress, but this did not occur. Concern is growing over the economic and social blowback Zero-Covid continues to bring. A new wave of lockdowns has been instituted in multiple locations. In the city of Zhengzhou, the largest iPhone factory in the PRC has been at least partially quarantined. Video shared on social media showed scenes of employees breaking out from the factory campus. This is hardly the vanguard of a coming social unrest wave, but the Chinese government would be wise to not dismiss this as an anomaly. With the economy still struggling to recover from the pandemic, Xi can ill afford to have a recalcitrant population.
Yesterday Russia halted its participation in a UN-brokered grain deal following a ‘major drone attack’ on the Russian Black Sea Fleet near its homeport of Sevastopol. Of course, Moscow blames Ukraine for the attack and its withdrawal from the trade deal effectively halts Ukrainian grain exports. The UN was shaken by Russia’s decision and is moving to convince Moscow to reverse course. This deal has helped reduce global food prices since its implementation in July. Over 9 million tons of grain and other food products have been exported since then.
As if there were not already enough hotspots around the world, tensions on the Korean peninsula have been steadily increasing in recent weeks. First came a series of North Korean ballistic missile and cruise missile test firings that culminated with a ballistic missile overflying Japan. North Korean warplanes have flown dangerously close to the border between the two Koreas, and hundreds of NK artillery rounds were fired into the sea close to a military buffer zone established between North Korea and South Korea in 2018. Then on Monday of this week, a North Korean merchant ship crossed into South Korean waters, leading to an exchange of warning shots between NK and ROK forces. Seoul has placed responsibility for the incident on Pyongyang’s shoulders.
Usually, the intent behind these heavy-handed North Korean actions is to send a resolute political message to the world and impress domestic audiences with brief glimpses of North Korean military power and technological prowess. Unfortunately, the rest of the world is not paying as much attention to North Korean actions as it normally does. The bulk of global attention is centered on the war in Ukraine and China’s growing assertiveness at home and abroad. In Washington, the Biden administration is dealing with Ukraine and China, as well as inflation and a looming midterm election that will probably not go well for the Democrats. North Korea is not a major priority at the moment no matter how hard Kim Jong Un tries to change that.
With North Korea not receiving an appropriate response from the US, South Korea and Japan, concern is being raised that Kim Jong Un’s regime will soon conduct its seventh nuclear weapons test. Seoul and Washington believe all of the necessary preparations have been completed and Kim is just waiting for the proper moment to order the test. With the Chinese Communist Party Congress now over and midterms approaching in the US, an opportunity could be fast approaching for North Korea.
Over the last week, comments made by senior US government officials and general officers indicate the United States is taking seriously the prospect of China moving faster than earlier thought to take Taiwan. After Xi Jinping said at the Communist Party Congress that the PRC reserves the “option to take all necessary measures” to reunify with Taiwan the warning was sounded by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The secretary said Beijing has made the “fundamental decision that the status quo is no longer acceptable” and China is now pursuing “reunification on a much faster timeline.” On Friday, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday picked up where Blinken left off. He stated at the Atlantic Council that the US needs to be prepared for a possible Chinese military move to be made against Taiwan by 2024. Perhaps even by the end of this year.
Gilday’s warning flies in the face of estimates and forecasts that China will not be prepared to move against Taiwan until 2027. The 2027 window has become embedded into the thinking and planning of the US military and intelligence community. Since the Pelosi Trip to Taiwan back in August, circumstances have changed somewhat. Beijing wasted little time in flexing its military muscle in the air and sea space surrounding the island nation. It became clear the Chinese government was moving to permanently alter the status quo. With the Chinese Communist Party Congress coming to a close this weekend and Xi Jinping seeming to have been successful in consolidating his hold on power, the warnings by US officials might indicate growing concern about Xi and his intentions.
Or the warnings could be more self-serving, at least on the part of Gilday. An attempt to cover his own failings as CNO with the prospect of war growing larger amid global geopolitical uncertainty. The current condition of the US Navy is not good, to put it bluntly. Readiness issues, a shipbuilding program dominated by political considerations and lack of a coherent doctrine for taking on a near-peer opponent in the air and at sea plague the service. China, on the other hand, has been preparing the PLAN and PLAAF for an eventual confrontation with the US Navy in the Western Pacific. While Gilday promotes a woke culture and readiness plummets, China is pumping out warships and submarines from its shipyards like hotcakes and focusing on the US Navy as its main enemy.