Blitz interviews with Russian experts on the latest developments on the Korean Peninsula.

“Any hostile move including detention and inspection of our peaceful vessels will be regarded as an unacceptable encroachment on our sovereignty and cause a powerful retaliation by military means,” Pyongyang said. The international community all but took it for a declaration of war. Was it, really?

This statement was caused by readiness proclaimed by South Korea to join the international initiative to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation. It was first suggested by the United States in 2003 as a means to prevent illegal turnover of materials used in manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. North Korea announced that it would be taken for an act of war on the part of South Korea. In fact, Pyongyang said it could no longer guarantee safety of American and South Korean ships, military or civilian, travelling along the western coast of the DPRK.

North Korea announced that it was no longer bound by the agreement whose signing in 1953 had marked the end of the Korean war. UN contingent commander on the one hand and commander of the Korean People’s Army and Chinese “volunteers” on the other signed the truce agreement in July 1953. Demilitarized zone was established between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea along the 38th parallel. Formally, both Koreas remain at war. In any event, annulment of the agreement does not signify an immediate commencement of hostilities.

This newspaper approached Konstantin Asmolov of the Center of Korean Studies (Institute of Far East, Russian Academy of Sciences) for comments on what threats North Korea with its nuclear ambitions constituted.

“Matter of fact, nobody has withdrawn from the truce agreement yet,” Asmolov said. “North Korea merely said that it retained the right to do so. It should be noted that the North regards the dialogue with the South as relations between two parts of a divided country and not as international relations at all. Incumbent President of South Korea Lee Myung-bak decided to change this state of affairs and treat North Korea as a foreign state. Besides, this Conservative all but cancelled what had been previously accomplished in the Korean dialogue.”

“Also importantly, the initiative South Korea pledged readiness to join stipulates examination of ships suspected of ferrying weapons of mass destruction. The DPRK in the meantime has a strong “besieged fortress” complex. Its military doctrine assumes that if it comes to a war, it will be a war against an alliance of the United States, South Ossetia, and Japan. Observing escalation of the situation or what they regard as escalation, the North Koreans might well decide that the war is imminent. Neither can we forget the existing level of mutual distrust. The North Koreans know that they lack sophisticated tanks and fuel and therefore see nuclear weapons as a factor of deterrence. Their military doctrine also stands for guerrilla warfare. This is what 200,000 men have been specially trained for. The enemy may even occupy North Korea, and that’s when they will come into play,” Asmolov explained.

Question: Pyongyang’s demarches… How serious are they?

Konstantin Asmolov: The North Koreans keep issuing warnings. Pyongyang tested the international community and public opinion in the world, it wanted to know how serious Obama was when he talked about a constructive dialogue. The DPRK launched a satellite and gauged the reaction to it. If America really meant it, then it would have let it be without trying to present this episode as a ballistic missile launch. But America did make a fuss and the DPRK knew right away that nobody intended to be constructive or anything. Well, two can play this game, they decided. In a word, North Korea has only one option – it will probably keep upping the stakes waiting to see who is the first to snap under the strain. It will be either a war which nobody wants, or treatment of the DPRK as an odious but equal partner. It is not nuclear blackmail or anything. The DPRK does not escalate tension in the hope to get relief aid from abroad. It is equality that Pyongyang aspires to.

Question: But what if it is a war, after all?

Konstantin Asmolov: We’ve all heard about the colossal regular army of North Korea numbering 1,000,000 men. Anyway, regular army of South Korea is 650,000 men strong. This latter has sophisticated merchandise while the North Koreans use obsolete military hardware. Besides, military budget of South Korea equals 26 military budgets of North Korea. South Korean military experts used to tell me that should they find themselves face to face with the North Koreans even without help from the US Army (which is unlikely, by the way), they would certainly repel all attacks and take the war to the territory of North Korea.

Also importantly, Pyongyang knows that the use of nuclear weapons will untie the hands of the international community. All bets will be off and all sorts of international retaliation will be possible then… In a word, let’s not present the North Korean leadership as a bunch of unpredictable tyrants.

Last but not the least, there is a factor that directly concerns Russia. Bombardment of North Korean nuclear sites will bring the fallout to Vladivostok in a couple of hours. It will be a humanitarian catastrophe. Besides, Russia and China will have to deal with stampeding refugees from North Korea.

Moskovsky Komsomolets also approached Major General Vladimir Dvorkin of the International Security Center of the Institute of Global Economy and International Relations (formerly commander of the 4th Research Center of the Defense Ministry).

“North Korea beats South Korea in terms of quantity of weapons. In quality, however, it is the other way round. The North Koreans have vintage Soviet weapons – armored vehicles, aircraft, and so on. Its aircraft meanwhile cannot hope to pierce any antiaircraft defense belt,” Dvorkin said. “Sure, Nodon-1 missiles can easily reach Seoul and other South Korean cities but some of them if not all will be intercepted by the Americans and South Koreans.”

“I do not think that the North Korean regime will go for hostilities. It knows after all that it will be the end of it. Pyongyang but blackmails Japan, South Korea, United States, and the rest of the negotiators.”

“Iran set an example for the DPRK,” Dvorkin continued. “The UN Security Council passed five resolutions on Iran without any effect whatsoever. Tehran defies them all and keeps threatening Israel. North Korea threatens South Korea in the same manner. The North Koreans desperately need diesel fuel, oil fuel, rice, and finances. They regard military blackmail as a means of survival.”

Said Colonel General Victor Yesin, formerly Strategic Missile Forces chief-of-staff, “Seoul is within reach of the North Korean aviation and artillery. It means that the threats to wipe if off the map are not to be taken lightly… All the same, however, I do not expect the latest developments on the Korean Peninsula to have any serious military consequences. All this sabre-rattling is but bluff. North Korea won’t attack anyone as long as nobody attacks it first. Its leadership knows that even though North Korea will damage South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Japan and the Americans on Okinawa, North Korea itself will be certainly destroyed.”

“The nuclear test and the missiles they launch are elements of a campaign of blackmail. Also importantly, they are supposed to have a certain effect on the population of North Korea itself. Their economic situation is disastrous. Official Pyongyang sends a message to the population: sure, we spend a lot on weapons but we can defend ourselves now. It does not matter to them that nobody intends to attack North Korea,” Yesin said.

This newspaper approached Konstantin Kosachev of the International Committee of the Duma for comments.

“Development of the situation has taken the worst possible turn,” the lawmaker said. “The DPRK chose an open confrontation with the rest of the world. It does not look like tactical maneuvering at all. It looks like strategy focused on military might, nuclear potential, and readiness to face self-isolation.”

“Another resolution of the UN Security Council is inevitable now,” Kosachev continued. “It may even include a reference to new sanctions, though what sanctions they may be is beyond me. Should the international community decide to leave North Korea without food, oil fuel, and other humanitarian articles, it will affect the population of North Korea and not its leaders. Personally I regard these measures as undesirable because they will but play into the hands of the ruling regime. As for other sanctions (say, embargo on luxuries), they’ve been in effect for years. In a word, I do not know what else might be invented. It will be an attempt to choose a lesser evil in any event.”