There is a noticeable tendency for tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul to flare up in the spring. Last year North Korea sealed the border, closed factories in the Kaesong Industrial Zone and denounced US-ROKA exercises as a provocation. Said military exercises occur every year. Two years ago, North Korea announced it would resume nuclear tests, and the US Navy dispatched Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington to South Korea in response. Well, last week, on Sunday March 30, North Korea fired artillery into the ocean, over the armistice line, and the Southern Navy responded in kind. Then on Monday March 31 the South Korean Defense Ministry announced they had recovered a crashed North Korean drone. These events are nothing new, but later in the week Prime Minister of Japan Abe Shinzo ordered the Marine Self-Defense Force to patrol the Sea of Japan with an AEGIS-equipped destroyer and shoot down any North Korean missiles bringing a new factor into the mix: the Japanese might actually do something. Previously, Japan was the least powerful party interested in the tension on the Korean peninsula. However, if the Japanese were to actually shoot down a North Korean device the rest of the region would have to take them more seriously.
The story of the Korean artillery exchange did not generate the same amount of excitement as previous flare-ups, nor the recovery of a crashed drone. I must admit, I was surprised the story about North Koreans flying drone aircraft did not get more coverage in the United States, because it seems like that story is tailor-made to get people excited. Of course, the on-going story of Russia and Ukraine is a bigger deal. And perhaps journalists and news consumers have learned that North Korean provocations are sound and fury signifying not much.
So why does North Korea carry out these ‘provocations?’ The North Korean regime does so hoping to bully South Korea and her allies into giving Pyongyang something. The Kim regime has worked hard over the last twenty years to create the appearance of madness, so that we outsiders will convince ourselves “the North Koreans are capable of anything!” The North calculates that this fear will deter the South and its allies from responding with force to North Korean provocations. Political scientists call this “calculated madness” or “rational madness.” It sort of works. No one with any real power wants to attack North Korea, and it has been over a decade since North Korea actually gained anything due to violent provocations. True, China has invested in North Korea and provided aid, but that is a matter of standing policy, and recently Chinese aid and investment has been reduced.
The story of the recovered drone is my favorite, because it actually teaches us something about North Korean military capability that you would otherwise need to be a defense insider to learn. NBC News quoted an unnamed Department of Defense official who reminded us that North Korea has UAV technology for ten years at least. Actually, building drones is simple. The hard part is flying them and that fact explains why the machine crashed where the South Koreans could retrieve it.
Japan has never been a silent participant in the dilemmas radiating from the Korean peninsula because Japan has a lot at risk. However its own strict military policies Japan was unlikely to participate in military action carried out by the United States or threaten any action of its own. Abe has intimated that he would change this long standing military policy, and he has stated frequently that Japan would be a ‘normal’ nation again. Abe means to entertain the idea of military force once more, something Japan has steadfastly refused to do since the 1950s. By sending its ships to patrol the Sea of Japan in response to North Korean behavior, Japan has stated that it will respond to North Korean threats. While the United States and South Korea play it very cool with North Korea, Tokyo is beginning with a different premise. The South Koreans approach hostilities with the North from the point of view that they will get the worst of whatever comes. The United States has to worry about how much to put on the line for a far away ally and how ordinary Americans will respond. Not only does Japan have its own territory and population to protect, the region also needs to see they cannot simply push the Japanese around.
There is one more consequence of Japan’s renewed willingness to take military action: Abe’s new orders will further convince Japan’s neighbors around Asia that Tokyo is remilitarizing. China and South Korea have been quite unhappy about the revival of conservatives in Tokyo because they see it as a return to the bad old days of the Japanese Empire. For the last decade, Chinese and Korean fears over Japanese militarization were generated by hypotheticals, but Japan taking an acutal proactive defensive posture is not hypothetical. Here is something concrete to which Mainland Asians may attach their fears.