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PoliticsNorth Korea

Why North Korea is wary of foreign warships in the region

August 10, 2021

South Korea and the US are holding joint exercises, and a British naval strike force is due to dock in Busan in the coming weeks, as the international community pressures Pyongyang to adhere to UN resolutions.

Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth
British warship HMS Queen Elizabeth and its accompanying fleet will dock in Busan on August 31Image: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/picture alliance

The United States and South Korea are holding joint military exercises from Tuesday, and the most powerful warship in Britain's Royal Navy is preparing to dock in the South Korean port of Busan before the end of August, moves that prompted Pyongyang to ramp up the rhetoric against what the regime insists is a threat to peace in the region.    

Seoul and Washington have tried to convince North Korea that the drills are purely defensive in nature and that the door is always open for substantive discussions on achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as peace and stability in the broader Northeast Asia region, but Pyongyang does not appear to be convinced. 

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong on Friday called on Pyongyang to follow up on its decision earlier this month to reopen communications across the heavily fortified border by agreeing to return to dialogue.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that the North resume talks with the international community, indicating there are different "options and possibilities" available in negotiations. 

Pyongyang, however, will have been angered by Seoul's decision to go ahead with the exercises with their US counterparts, which will commence with a four-day crisis-management staff training exercise that is due to be followed by a 10-day computer-simulated Combined Command Post Training drill. 

South Korean and US soldiers watching from an observation post during a joint live firing drill between South Korea and the US at the Seungjin Fire Training Field in Pocheon, in 2017
Seoul and Washington have tried to convince North Korea that their military drills are purely defensive in natureImage: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un and a close adviser to the North Korean dictator, said in a statement issued on August 1 through the state-run Uriminzokkiri news outlet that it was "an unpleasant story that joint military exercises between the South Korean army and US forces could go ahead as scheduled."

She added that the exercises would "further becloud the way ahead" in North-South relations. 

North slams UK for sending warship

News that British warship HMS Queen Elizabeth and its accompanying fleet will dock in Busan on August 31 has provoked further condemnation from Pyongyang, which has accused Great Britain of "gunboat diplomacy" and "poking its nose" into Asia-Pacific affairs.

A statement from the North's Foreign Ministry on August 3 in the name of Choe Hyon Do, an official with the North Korea-Europe Association, accused Britain of escalating tensions in the region. It also claimed that London was looking to raise its profile on the international stage after becoming "an outcast as a result of its departure from the European Union."

"The time is gone forever when the UK threatened the countries of the world with 'gunboat diplomacy' and colonized them of its free will," it added. "The UK had better concern itself with the troublesome after-effects of Brexit rather than groundlessly picking on others in order to grab what it desires for its political purpose." 

The British fleet is on a seven-month global deployment and made a port call to the Pacific island of Guam on August 6. Accompanied by a number of British, US and Dutch warships, the strike group is scheduled to travel on to Busan before arriving in Japan in September. It is the South Korean stopover that appears to have particularly angered the North Korean regime. 

"This is the sort of language that Pyongyang uses when it gets agitated and feels that it has to push back," said Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University.

"It's the sort of rhetoric that they regularly deploy and is consistent with their worldview that the rest of the international community is aggressive and determined to destroy them and that therefore the only recourse is an attitude of 'might is right,'" he told DW. 

The North's angry accusations are likely to have been further provoked as Britain was one of the 16 nations that committed forces to the United Nations Command, which resisted the North Korean invasion of the South in 1950 and then fought the three-year Korean War, Pinkston said.

Ensuring security in the Indo-Pacific

Japan and the United States have in recent years been calling on other governments to play a larger role in the security of Northeast Asia, in particular through military deployments that challenge China's unjustified claims to a vast area of the South China Sea and North Korea's efforts to circumvent UN sanctions. 

Warships from the UK and France have already participated in multinational operations designed to stop ship-to-ship transfers of banned imports, such as fuel, to North Korea, while a German warship is also headed to the region. The restrictions have been imposed in a series of UN resolutions as Pyongyang has continued to defy calls to halt its development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. 

June Park, a political economist at George Washington University, says North Korea has "no reason" to protest when other nations deploy military assets to the region.

"For the UK, France and Germany, this is simply a chance to collaborate with their allies in the Indo-Pacific region and develop their own interests," she said. 

The UK clearly has economic and trade reasons to fly the flag in the region as it is joining the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Park said. And while the visit to Busan will have little to do with trade with South Korea, it will serve to demonstrate that London is in lockstep with the US on Indo-Pacific security matters, she added. 

German frigate Bayern
German frigate Bayern recently left for a six-month deployment that will include participation in the UN maritime surveillance of North KoreaImage: Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/dpa/picture alliance

Will Germany become target of similar rhetoric?

"Looking at the North Korean situation, one would think that it would be more important for their leadership to deal with all the problems that they are facing at present than complaining about one of the few countries in the West that does have a diplomatic relationship with Pyongyang," Park said.

North Korea has an embassy in London and the UK operates an embassy in Pyongyang, although it is presently closed due to coronavirus restrictions. 

The condemnation of other nations' security and foreign policies in the region comes shortly after the German frigate Bayern left Wilhelmshaven, in northwestern Germany, for a six-month deployment that will include participation in the United Nations maritime surveillance of North Korea — potentially making Germany the target of similar rhetoric from Pyongyang. 

The deployment of the Bayern by Germany may provoke a response from Pyongyang, especially as it will be taking part in patrols designed to counter the North's efforts to get around sanctions, but Pinkston believes the rhetoric will be less harsh given that Germany did not commit forces to the Korean War in the 1950s. 

"Germany was not one of the sending states and it has a more restrained approach to joint military operations, such as in the Gulf or Afghanistan, for historical reasons, so while there is likely to be some rhetoric, I don't think it will be so over the top," he said. 

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea