Today is October 10.
In North Korea, that is significant.
It’s the anniversary of the founding of its Communist Worker’s Party and the Kim dynasty of rulers.
To North Korea, it’s exactly the kind of day that warrants celebration.
And, in Kim Jong-un’s mind, posturing.
Such celebrations tend to be marked by military parades and boisterous speeches. But also missile launches and nuclear warhead tests.
But he’s being predictable.
A fireworks displaying for Pyongyang residents and military marked the test of a hydrogen bomb in September. Picture: KCNA via KNSSource:AFP
“The Kim regime usually uses these sorts of occasions to demonstrate some show of strength — in this current climate a missile test is a likely result,” says Dr Genevieve Hohnen, lecturer in politics and international relations at Edith Cowan University.
Less predictable is US President Donald Trump — himself full of bluster that North Korea’s “Rocket Man … won’t be around much longer.”
Today, he’s tweeted again: “Our country has been unsuccessfully dealing with North Korea for 25 years, giving billions of dollars & getting nothing. Policy didn’t work!”
This time he will have significant military forces at his fingertips. US forces have been positioned and prepared to counter any possible North Korean provocation over coming days.
And tensions have long since escalated to flashpoint.
Military and diplomatic analysts the world over all agree that all it could take to ignite war is one stupid mistake from either player.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observes a launch of the medium-and-long range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 last month. Picture: KCNA via KNSSource:AFP
TONGUES OF WAR
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump both have a way with words.
Especially when it comes to insults.
Last month, President Trump told the United Nations he would eliminate North Korea if the United States was to be attacked.
“No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles,” he said. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”
Kim Jong-un, naturally, had a reply.
“The US president … has been rendered tense as never before and is inching closer to a touch-and-go state, is arousing worldwide concern,” a statement made in his name reads.
US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base earlier this week. Picture: AFP / Brendan SmialowskiSource:AFP
“A frightened dog barks louder … Now that Trump has denied the existence of and insulted me and my country in front of the eyes of the world and made the most ferocious declaration of a war in history that he would destroy the DPRK, we will consider with seriousness exercising of a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”
Jong-un asserted he would continue down his well-established path of testing and bluster. And one of his most recent — specific — threats was to ‘bracket with fire’ the US military bases on the Pacific island of Guam.
“(Trump’s) remarks … have convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct and that it is the one I have to follow to the last,” Jong-un asserted.
And Dr Hohnen believes October 10 has renewed relevance in Jong-un’s mind.
“It is also significant that Kim Jong-un has reinvigorated the importance and power of the Korean Worker’s Party in comparison to his fathers more military focused approach. Kim Jong-un has really used the Worker’s Party to embed his power so it is likely he will prioritise sending a message of strength to the world on their founding day.”
In a photo taken on October 8, 2017 participants described as ‘working people, youth, and students of Pyongyang’ perform during a mass gala event marking the 20th anniversary of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s election as general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Picture: AFP / KIM Won-JinSource:AFP
DATES WITH DESTINY
Dr Colin Alexander, an expert in East Asian political communications from Nottingham Trent University, agrees October 10 is a very important date for the Kim regime.
“National holidays in North Korea tend to be occasions where the regime expresses their power to the North Korean people and the wider world,” Dr Alexander says. “Indeed, the current round of tensions began just over a year ago on 9th September 2016 when North Korea exploded a nuclear bomb underground. The DPRK was founded on 9th September 1945, days after the surrender of Japan.”
Dr Alexander points out the current cycle of tensions began on September 9, 2016, when North Korea exploded a nuclear bomb at its underground test facility. The DPRK, he points out, was founded on September 9, 1945 — just days after the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II.
And while it may seem odd to Western democracies, Dr Alexander says celebrating the founding of the Worker’s Party is in keeping with North Korea’s authoritarian nature.
“In democratic regimes there is a clear distinction between parliament, the executive, the civil service, and political parties,” he says. “In an authoritarian regime like North Korea the party encompasses all aspects of political life and many aspects of public life. To this end, the celebration of the founding of the party forms part of the people’s ideological ‘education’ and is thus a propaganda of the regime.”
Storm clouds gather over the USS Ronald Reagan in Hong Kong last week. The nuclear powered aircraft carrier is reportedly participating in joint drills with South Korea. Picture: AP / Vincent YuSource:AP
PIECES IN PLACE
Late last month South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in was briefed by his national security adviser that October 10 date would likely produce the next provocation.
“(The report) also said there are worries over military conflict being sparked by accidental incidents,” said Park Wan-ju, politician and head spokesman of the ruling Democratic Party said at the time. “The president said the United States speaks of military and diplomatic options, but South Korea can’t go through war again.”
Technically speaking, South Korea and the United States are still at war with North Korea. The last fight only ended in 1953 with a tense truce. Not a peace treaty.
They’ve been staring each other down across the demilitarised zone along the 38th parallel ever since.
But things changed with North Korea’s sixth nuclear warhead test last month.
It was the first time Pyongyang demonstrated it has a hydrogen bomb — significantly more powerful than those it had previously tested. It also came after the successful test-firing of a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with the necessary range to reach the United States.
It has also proven its intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) are becoming more robust and reliable, with two overflights of Japan with the type. Kim Jong-un says he is “studying” a proposal to unleash these on Guam.
North Korea’s intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 shown lifting off from the launching pad near Pyongyang. Picture: KCNA via KNSSource:AFP
The nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan has just finished a visit to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong. It’s the first such visit since a super carrier was turned away from the high profile port in 2016.
The 100,000 ton warship is due to be back near the Korean Peninsula in the next few days — just in time for join-exercises with South Korean ships, and any fresh sabre-rattling aimed at Pyongyang.
Dr Alexander says the USS Reagan’s arrival ahead of the October 10 celebrations is a “clear statement of power” by the United States.
“This is an asymmetric conflict and should be framed in the context of the US’s other neo-conservative actions around the world regarding regime change,” he says. “Just like Hussein, Gaddafi and other leaders who have been deposed in recent years, the propaganda of the United States has been to emphasise the inherent danger, erratic behaviour and almost psychopathy of these regimes, to undermine their legitimacy and to prepare the minds of international audiences for intervention, no matter the actual threat posed.”
A man watches a screen showing a graphic of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul. North Korea has fired several intermediate range ballistic missile eastwards over Japan. Picture: AFP / JUNG Yeon-JeSource:AFP
This time around, South Korea says it has not yet seen North Korea untertaking any preparations for a long-range missile launch or nuclear test.
“We have yet to detect any signs of immediate provocations from North Korea,” a South Korean military source told the Yonhap News Agency. “We are maintaining an upgraded monitoring effort to guard against any developments.”
Up to this point, instead of attempting to douse North Korea’s escalating threats the Trump administration has chosen to match them.
The advanced US antimissile THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system is now fully in place in South Korea after its rollout was delayed in April. China and Russia are disturbed its powerful radars could be used to track aircraft and missiles deep within their own territory. Washington insists it’s only there because of Kim Jong-un’s increasingly bellicose threats.
The US has also promised to strengthen its presence on and around the Korean peninsula.
“The US has pledged to expand the rotational deployment of its strategic assets near the Korean peninsula,” South Korea’s head of the National Security Chung Eui-yong said. “[This] will begin as early as late this year, and will help us expand our defence capabilities.”
A B-1B “Lancer” bomber flies with its wings swept forward for slow, low flight. Picture: News CorpSource:News Limited
He was not specific about what these “strategic” assets were.
It could mean anything. Troops. Tanks. Stealth fighters. Warships. Nuclear missiles.
The presence of the USS Ronald Reagan could already be part of this.
North Korea has made equivalent rumbles.
Pyongyang’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho has said Trump’s rhetoric on Twitter now made it justifiable for his nation to shoot down any US bombers — even if in international airspace — that strayed too close to his country. Aircraft, ammunition and fuel have reportedly been observed moving to back up his threat.
And it came just one day after a flight of US B-1B strategic bombers, with a fighter escort, flew north — past the demilitarised zone — along the North Korea coast (although in international airspace) for the first time in two decades.