U.S. army Sergeant Eric Flynn knew what he was talking about when I encountered him behind an M2A3 Bradley — a “fighting vehicle” that looks like a tank – at a live-fire drill before thousands of mostly South Korean spectators about 20 miles below the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. “We’ll see if war pops up,” he remarked laconically as U.S. and South Korean warplanes bombed targets in the Seung-jin fire drill field, a vast playground for war games in which tanks rumbled and roared and 150-mm cannon boomed on cue. He wasn’t worried — “not with China telling everyone to back down.”
That assessment from the field level summed up the most compelling reason for North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to send his number one deputy, Vice Marshall Hwang Pyong-so, to the “truce village” of Panmunjom in the middle of the DMZ about 40 miles north of Seoul. That’s where U.S., Chinese and North Korean generals signed the armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953, and it’s also where Hwang and South Korea’s national security adviser, Kim Kwan-jin, on August 25 signed another historic agreement that ended the threat of a shootout across the DMZ between beefed-up North and South Korean forces.
North Korea several days earlier had given South Korea 48 hours to stop the mega-loudspeaker broadcasts that had been inundating the North Koreans across the zone since two South Korean sergeants three weeks earlier stumbled on North Korean mines planted on the southern side of the DMZ. One of them lost both legs, the other one leg. The South rhad tesumed the broadcasts, cancelled by agreement with the North 11 years earlier, after the North denied complicity in setting the mines.
Kim Jong-un, however, had one all-important reason for backing down — and it wasn’t the threat of the Americans and South Koreans bringing all that firepower down on his outsized but outgunned military establishment. He knew pretty well that the U.S. and South Korea, engaging in annual war games, weren’t about to declare the second Korean War even after he convened the military commission of his ruling Workers’ Party, declared his own “semi-state of war” and ordered troops along the DMZ to be “battle ready.”
The overriding consideration was not the Americans but the Chinese. However the North Koreans hate to admit it, they can’t start a war if the Chinese aren’t on their side. The reasons are totally obvious. North Korea gets all its oil from China. Coal can generate the power to keep the lights on when and where absolutely necessary. Wood is burned in canisters in the backs of trucks as fuel for engines — a trick learned from the Japanese when they ruled the Korean peninsula — and used for home heating in the terrible winter.
Oil, however, accounts for 80%-90% of North Korea’s energy needs. Impoverished people scrounge for scraps in mountains stripped of trees, but machinery, motor vehicles, planes and ships consume oil. North Korea’s 1.1 million troops, underfed and ill-equipped, could not wage war for more than a few weeks, if that, without massive infusions of extra fuel that China is not about to provide.
The Chinese, moreover, had one immediate compelling reason for wanting the North Koreans to hang on in Panmunjom for as long as it took to defuse the crisis. This week, on Thursday, September 3, the Chinese are staging what may be the grandest parade in their history — an extravaganza marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. President Xi Jinping will be there, showing off before his people and the world. The last thing he needs is obstreperous North Koreans messing up the show with a war.
From the Korean viewpoint, the occasion is all the more significant since South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye will be there along with a bunch of other world leaders including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. North Korea’s relations with China are so terrible that Kim Jong-un hasn’t been there once since taking over from his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011.
Instead Kim is sending Choe Ryong-hye, formerly defense minister and vice marshal, who lost out to Hwang Pyong-so in a power struggle but survives as secretary of the Workers’ Party. While Park will meet Xi for a crucial summit the next day, Choe will content himself, at best, with chatting with lesser officials who undoubtedly will express their relief that the threat to the “stability” of the Korean peninsula is over.
The Chinese amply made their point by parading tanks and self-propelled projectiles — 150-milimeter cannon — through the streets of Yanji, the capital of the ethnically Korean Yanbian region above Chiuna’s Tumen River border with North Korea. China’s defense ministry dismissed reports that this show of force had anything to do with keeping the North Koreans in line as “purely hype,” but that claim was pro forma. The North Koreans have to be hyper-sensitive to Chinese on maneuvers along their border even if ostenibly for ”training.”
War was not likely, said Specialist Brett Beale, with Sergeant Flynn on the Bradley, “as long as China has everyone on its leash.” He did allow though, “With what happened with the two Korean soldiers, there’s a higher chance of something happening.”
North Korea’s expression of “regret over the recent mine explosion” may have been less than an apology but was “meaningful” enough for the South Koreans to shut down their loudspeakers after three days of talks. South Korea, of course, had to consider Chinese pressure too. The Chinese presumably made clear to the South they too had to come to terms — for the sake of South Korea’s enormous trade and investment relations with China, not to mention the pressure China brings to bear on the North.
Gazing down on his troops from the incline above, Major General Ted Martin, commander of the Second Infantry Division, with aviation, armored and artillery brigades astride North Korea’s historic invasion route to Seoul, was optimistic. “Hopefully we’ll be able to maintain the armistice,” he told me.
Sooner or later, of course, there’ll be another crisis. “It’s a very volatile area,” General Martin observed as U.S. and South Korean F16s and 15s swept over the hills, black smoke billowing from where their bombs had fallen. “Tensions are high.”
This article was written by Donald Kirk from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.