by Russell A. Vacante, Ph.D.
To say that there are a number of political-military threatening activities in the world today that have the potential of endangering the national security of many Asian nations, especially the Republic of Korea (ROK), does not come as a surprise to many political observers. These menacing political-military activities spring up at a time the political, economic and military resources of the United States are stretched and when U.S. citizens have a low tolerance for foreign additional military engagements. The American public is close to being psychologically exhausted from seeing so many of its youth return home from distant shores in body bags, with missing limbs and other seriously injuries. This disposition is exasperated by the huge economic strain placed on the wallets and purse strings of U.S. citizens who see only a questionable return on their international military investment. This is a circumstance that some totalitarian regimes recognize and are ready to exploit. This psychological and economic strain currently being experienced by the American public certainly is not going unnoticed by Kim Jong Un and the military leaders of North Korea. The Kim regime is an astute observer of American military capabilities and the U.S. national political climate. They are also opportunists that will attempt to leverage any perceived lack of U.S. political will into military gains on the Korean peninsula. From their ethnocentric position in world politics they are following socio-political events in the U.S. as a potential means to acquire a tactical military advantage on the Korean peninsula.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas fighters over control of the Gaza Stripe has become a daily preoccupation of the U.S. President, Congress, and many American citizens. It has Secretary of State Kerry doing shuttle diplomacy to the Middle East in an attempt to broker a cease-fire between two archenemies that for centuries, in one way or another, have been at war with each other. The potential of this Middle East conflict globally escalating is real, therefore there is a pressing U.S. government sense urgency to stop the violence and have the two sides reach some sort of peaceful accord for the sake of all non-citizen combatants. The longer this conflict continues the higher the potential risk to U.S. national security. As an allied of Israel, there are a growing number of folks in the Arab world that view the U.S. as being partially responsible for the killing and maiming of Gaza Strip residences and the destruction of their homes by Israel’s motor shells and bombs. This Arab perception, legitimate or not, puts the U.S. in direct conflict with much of the Arab world that may seek retaliation against the U.S. for its support of Israel. This looming threat to U.S national security is just one of numerous other Middle East conflicts stretching the political energy, as well as, the economic resources of the U.S. government and citizens. The relatively sudden and surprising emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that is currently capturing and holding large pieces of real estate in Iraq and Syria appears to over take political priorities the U.S. has concerning the Gaza Strip.
The Russian Prime Minster, Vladimir Putin, aggressive designs toward the Ukraine is another political destabilizing event that the U.S. (with allies) is attempting to address without getting militarily caught up in a major conflict that has a potential of resulting in a show down between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. U.S. and European sanctions, thus far have not acted as a successful deterrent in quelling the territorial conflict between Ukrainians and Russian separatist living in Ukraine who are armed and reportedly supported by the Russian military. Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine is largely based on Putin’s understanding that much of Europe is dependent on Russian oil and that Russia is Europe’s third largest trading partner. Putin sees the U.S. imposed sanctions only as a minor economic irritant while knowing there is much internal economic leverage to be gained from making the Ukraine a subservient state of Russia. Putin’s move on Ukraine is further fueled by his ambition to restore his nation to former Soviet Union world power status. If this activity strains U.S. – Russian relations to the point rekindling Cold War relationship, to the determinant of current cooperative endeavors between the two counties, Putin seems willing to take this risk. In the event the U.S. cannot, through diplomatic channels, persuade Putin from “annexing” the Ukraine, the only remaining course of action may be providing heavy weapons support to the Ukraine. However, Putin—in a similar way to Kim Jong Un --is also reading the preverbal political and economic tealeaves in the U.S. He is counting U.S. citizen distain for additional international military involvement and the U.S. government preoccupation with the Middle East conflict as a green light for pressing on with an invasion of the Ukraine.
China’s growing military is a third global destabilizing force that the U.S. has to prepare potentially to confront. Similar to Putin’s quest for the recreation of the Soviet Union, the Chinese government also seems to be looking to the past to shape its future. It may not be an intellectual exaggeration to suggest that China longs for recapturing its Middle Kingdom status to which its neighboring countries would once again pay it tribute to China.
China’s expanding naval activity on the East China Sea, to include laying claim unpopulated islands govern by Japan, and its growing territorial tensions with Malaysia, the Philippines, and Viet Nam all seem to indicate Middle Kingdom type aspirations. Diminishing or eliminating U.S. naval dominance of the sea is first necessary for China’s hegemony of East Asia to succeed. The challenge to U.S. naval dominance comes in the form of roaming trucks equipped DF-21D, 900 mile range missiles that pose a threat to U.S. aircraft carries. China’s development of an aircraft carrier fleet and the development reportedly of supersonic submarines that can reach the west coast of the U.S. in just over two hours is another threat to U.S. naval superiority on the high seas. The rapidly expanding naval resources of China are its attempt to capture control of East China Sea trading lanes. China’s dominance over regional sea commerce is threat to U.S. national security interest. Its control of East China Sea lanes would potentially impose trading restrictions U.S trade with its allies, as well as, potentially interfere with American-Korean joint military exercises in the region. More immediate U.S. concern is that China’s aggressive growing naval activity could accidently, or intentionally, results in the killing and injuring of American sailors and marines. Such an incident would mostly likely result in an U.S. military response that in turn may result in escalating war tensions between the two nations. Defusing China’s “Middle Kingdom” aspirations is increasing becoming diplomatic priority of the U.S. State Department and U.S. citizens.
Of course there are the conflicts in Syria, the menacing political and military activity of Iran, along with genocide taking place throughout various parts of Africa that all tend to drain the energy, attention, and time of U.S. government officials, as well as, U.S. economic and military resources. As a world leading power, the U.S. is busily challenged with putting its preverbal fingers in so many Middle East political dikes in order to help prevent neighboring nations from drowning in military chaos. The ominous U.S. political situations mentioned above, Kim Jong Un may believe, has the potential for creating chaos for the Republic of Korea (ROK).
The leadership of north Korea may try to seize upon the opportunity to ferment political and military unrest within the ROK mistakenly thinking that the U.S. resolve to defense the ROK has been weakened by recent international events. Also, north Korea knowledge of China’s increased military presence in the region may lead the DPRK to falsely assume U.S. military defense of the ROK would not occur due to Chinese intervention. Given the political disposition of north Korea’s government and the global challenges confronting the U.S. this year, the chances of north Korea stepping up its political and military campaign again the ROK has a high probability of increasing. Kim Jong Un and his military leaders should understand that the U.S. anticipates what the Pyongyang leadership is thinking and that the U.S. and Korean governments will not be taken by surprise by any attempts of military aggression coming from the north.
Aside from the U.S. anticipating and being prepared for any potential military aggression from north Korea, let it be known that while the American public through war wryly, is far from being too preoccupied to come to the defense the ROK, our long standing ally. Our people and cultures are interwoven much so that an attack on one party is an attack on the other.
Korean culture has emerged, in recent years, as a major subculture in the U.S. There is respect, feelings of friendship and admiration among many Americans for the Korean community living within the U.S. and in the ROK. Korean and American soldiers fought and died together during the Korean War, the Viet Nam conflict and at other global hot spots. Any military intrusion from north Korea that endangers the well being of one of America’s staunches friend and ally would not be taken likely. Endemic to American culture is the willingness of its people to come to the aid of others, especially when those in danger are endearing friends. There is much economically and politically more at stake for the ROK and the U.S. now then there was during the 1950-1953 Korean War, so the north should realize that the ROK-US military response to any military aggression will be of a different kind and intensity.