The North and the Putin factor

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The North and the Putin factor

Kim Min-seok

The author is an editorial writer and senior researcher at the Institute for Military and Security Affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Concerns are fast growing over the possibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin using tactical nuclear weapons to turn the tide in the Ukraine war. A number of young Koreans sadly want to leave their country for safer places, citing the possible entanglement of South Korea in an evolving power competition between Russia and the West. Some graduate students have considered heading to politically stable African countries with low risk of war.

At first, I was embarrassed to hear of such shameful cowardice. Their attitude is in sharp contrast to that of their Israeli counterparts studying overseas and rushing to their motherland to fight in the war against Arab states upon learning of an invasion. So I wondered why Korean students wish to flee their homeland. The following is what I learned.

While debating the alarming developments in Eastern Europe, the graduate students, who are enrolled in doctoral courses at universities specializing in defense and security, worried about the likelihood of the Ukraine war spreading to the rest of the world. Their concern primarily originates with Putin’s possible use of tactical nuclear weapons to redeem his reputation in an uphill battle against Ukraine. Some security analysts link Putin’s mobilization and referendums involving residents in occupied territories to the need to build the case for the use of tactical nuclear weapons. They cannot be entirely wrong.

But they went a step further. If Putin uses nuclear weapons to overcome his own crisis, it could lead to a misjudgment by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. If Putin takes a nightmarish path, Kim could follow. 
Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands prior to their talks at Far East Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia, April 25, 2019. [EPA/YONHAP]

Chinese President Xi Jinping could be tempted to attack Taiwan after being buoyed by Putin’s move. If the front expands to Taiwan and the Korean peninsula, the United States will have trouble dealing with conflicts on the three fronts at the same time. As this will cause a serious power vacuum on the peninsula, some of the students want to leave the country before it is too late. Despite criticism of their cowardice, the idea of escaping is catching on.

Russia is at a disadvantage in the war. Due to its strategic misjudgment from the start, the country failed to achieve its goal of occupying Ukraine in just three days by neutralizing Ukraine’s cyber capabilities, launching information operations and deploying ground forces. The original miscalculation is the main cause for its struggle in the western border regions.

Instead of getting Ukraine to surrender, Russia faced critical limits to its military operations. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Russia has lost 80,000 soldiers.

When Russia sends fighter jets to skies over the battlegrounds, they often go down after being shot by anti-aircraft missiles fired by Ukrainian ground forces. Street battles are definitely disadvantageous to Russian forces as Ukrainians are hostile to Russians and rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles are waiting for Russian tanks and armored vehicles at every corner.

The Ukrainian troops are reinforcing their armaments with U.S.-supplied weapons like the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars), a light multiple rocket launcher developed in the late 1990s for the U.S. Army. Ukrainian morale goes up steadily while Russia is increasingly on the defensive. As Russia’s economy shakes, Putin’s political standing also can be shaken.

On September 30, less than a day before Russia declared its annexation of the Donbas, Luhansk, Zaporia and Gershon regions, the Ukrainian Army liberated Liman, a strategic point in Donbas. Ukraine forces are also attacking the southern front near Gershon. If Gershon is returned to Ukraine, it affects Crimea, currently occupied by Russia. As Gershon has a canal linking the Dnieper River basin and Crimea, Russia will immediately lose control over a critical water supply.

Probably due to such a sensitive situation, Putin hurriedly declared the annexation of the four regions, including the contested Donbas region. He threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons if the Ukrainian forces advance to the region after branding it as a brazen invasion into its own territory. On October 3, the New York Times reported that a Russian train carrying nuclear equipment had departed for Ukraine.

Under such inflammable circumstances, North Korea on October 4 fired what appeared to be an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan into the Pacific. The missile flew 4,500 kilometers (2,796 miles) at Mach 17. It was the first such launch since 2017. North Korea’s Hwasong-12 missile can strike Guam, a base for U.S. strategic assets to be deployed to the Korean Peninsula in times of crisis.

North Korea also fired missiles into the East Sea recently while a joint South Korea-U.S. maritime drill was ongoing. In the past, it refrained from missile launches when joint exercises were underway. The recalcitrant state fired missiles on 25 occasions this year alone.

Nuclear force guidelines legislated by the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly on September 8 are alarming. The 11 articles in the guidelines on the mission of its nuclear weapons and conditions for their use stipulated that the nuclear weapons are for “operational missions to achieve a decisive victory in a war by repelling an aggression by the enemy.” The declaration means North Korea can preemptively use nuclear weapons in battle if necessary.

Article 5 stipulates five conditions for using nuclear weapons: when North Korea is attacked by weapons of massive destruction, including nuclear weapons, or such an attack is imminent; when hostile forces launch a nuclear or non-nuclear attack on its leaders or nuclear force commanders; when its major strategic assets are attacked or such an attack is imminent; when nuclear weapons are unavoidable to prevent the escalation or prolongation of a war or to seize the control in war; and when an incident threatening the nation’s survival and people’s lives takes place.

Pyongyang’s stipulation of legal grounds for using a diverse range of nuclear weapons demonstrates its confidence in its nuclear capabilities. According to the RAND Corporation and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, an independent think tank in South Korea, the North is assumed to possess 67 to 116 nuclear missiles and can produce 12 to 18 each year. If it conducts its seventh nuclear test, it is expected to acquire the ability to produce tactical nuclear weapons for battle.

Putin and Kim both can use nukes preemptively at their discretion to sustain their regimes, not as a means to prevent a war. The two leaders who share dictatorship at the cost of people’s lives and freedom remind us of the “banality of evil,” a term coined by political theorist Hannah Arendt after watching the trial of Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann in 1961 (In the trial, Eichmann behaved as an ordinary person after committing atrocities against the Jewish people without feeling any sense of guilt).

The problem is that dictators would commit even graver errors to sooth their misjudgments or policy errors. Undoubtedly, the results will lead to a loss of many innocent lives and to destruction. There is no room for common sense or normal thinking.

What the Yoon Suk-yeol administration and military authorities must do is clear. They must give up the Moon Jae-in administration’s wishful thinking that the government can resolve the nuclear threat through dialogue. What counts most now is the U.S. nuclear umbrella and reinforcement of our military’s ability to cope with the North Korean threat.

The answer must be found in the three defenses against the missile threats: the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system, the Korean Air and Missile Defense system and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation plan, not to mention the establishment of a solid civil defense system in South Korea. If the government fails to acquire an ability to remove the North’s nukes — and war commanders — to safeguard the lives of our people, it can neither deter the nuclear threat nor maintain peace on the peninsula.
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