The world is by now accustomed to the provocative antics of US strike aircraft, drones, electronic warfare planes and nuclear-armed navy ships that zoom and roar and splash aggressively in so many regions of our conflict-ridden globe, but the latest little prank seemed designed to attract hilarity and resentment in equal measure.
The wind-up involved two US Air Force B-1 Lancer supersonic bombers flying fast and low over a military airfield in South Korea on September 13. They were escorted by US and South Korean fighters and watched by the South Korean Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Lee Sun-jin, and the US Commander in South Korea, General Vincent Brooks, who declared that the purpose of the fly-past was to «provide just one example of the full range of military capabilities in the deep resources of this strong alliance to provide and strengthen extended deterrence».
One comical aspect of the excursion was the Pentagon’s admission that the supposedly chilling demonstration of military deterrence had to be postponed for a day because of «inclement weather conditions» at the bombers’ station in Guam, some 3,000 kilometres to the south east of their airshow airbase. It appears that these mighty death-dealing machines which, according to Boeing, «have been nearly continuously deployed in combat operations over Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001» couldn’t take off to perform their «example of the full range of military capabilities» because of a thunderstorm.
Although it is mildly amusing to reflect on the fact that rain prevented a planned demonstration of the «extended deterrence» of the US bomber fleet, the other side of the coin is rather more important. The flypast was supposed to impress the deeply yawning «Free World» nations, certainly. But it was also intended to scare the pants off the North Koreans, who had just carried out their fifth test of a nuclear weapon. Perhaps it was meant to deter them from conducting a sixth test.
It was great fun for all the air forces involved, and Reuters reported that «The pair of US supersonic B-1B Lancer strategic bombers took off from their base in Guam and flew with two Japan Air Self Defence Force aircraft before a ‘hand-off’ to South Korean fighters, according to the US military».
But a different sort of ‘hand-off’ was intended to be conveyed to North Korea, and in this there was also success by the Pentagon — although not quite in the way that Washington intended. It resulted in what is known as ‘blow-back.’
There is little doubt that the dynastic dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, who took over from his deceased and equally far-out father in 2011, is a psychotic cretin whose inhuman treatment of his citizens is barely credible. His behaviour is savage, unbalanced and erratic, to put it mildly. But — he is the supreme leader of nuclear-capable North Korea and has to be reckoned with.
Kim can’t be dealt with like the other national leaders whom the US has overthrown in its forays round the world. He will not be lynched like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein after a US war resulted in a travesty of a trial; nor will he be brutally murdered like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (remember Hillary’s «we came; we saw; he died») after a US-NATO war resulted in no trial at all. Given present indications, it seems likely that Kim will be able to continue ruling for many decades, and that the Koreas, North and South, will continue swapping insults, with the US flying by in the background, trying to comfort the one and menace the other.
It should be obvious that Kim will be neither frightened nor impressed by a couple of US bombers flying over what he regards as an enemy airfield only 80 kilometres from his border. Indeed, the B-1 ballets seem to have enraged him to the point of apoplexy, and his mouthpiece, the official news agency KCNA, quickly responded by announcing that national resentment was «exploding like a volcano» while «any sanction, provocation and pressure cannot ruin our status as a nuclear state and evil political and military provocations will only result in a flood of reckless nuclear attacks that will bring a final destruction».
North Korea declared that its nuclear test «demonstrated the dignity of the country guided by the iron-willed commander as well as the strength of the Korean people,» but unfortunately nuclear explosions don’t fill empty bellies.
There is little doubt that the people of North Korea would be happier if they lived in similar conditions to those enjoyed by their ethnic brethren in South Korea — or almost anywhere else in that region, in fact — but they are prevented from learning about civilisation and normal human behaviour by the totalitarian decrees of the hideous Kim and his acolytes.
It is even likely that many of these poverty-stricken, deluded, persecuted, ill-nourished serfs did genuinely object to the US aerial antics only a tiny distance from their border with a country which, unknown to them, would offer them life-styles of abundance beyond their wildest dreams. That’s the way police states work. All but the most privileged of North Korea’s people live lives of horrible desperation, but their dictator is not going to do anything to alleviate their plight.
What is certainly not going to improve their lives is the despatch of US bombers to perform an air show intended to menace and frighten a downtrodden society whose citizens are incapable of understanding what NBC News calls «gunboat diplomacy from 35,000 feet». All that these people are told by Kim and his propagandists is that the US has nuclear weapons and that there is therefore absolutely no reason why their country should not have nuclear weapons. And on the surface it might seem that Kim has a reasonable argument.
After all, as observed by Global Zero «the United States has about 7,000 nuclear warheads and has conducted over 1,000 nuclear tests… and yet it still refuses to ratify that Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that could put an end to nuclear testing forever». But Washington insists that North Korea should bend the knee and obey its orders to «don’t do as I do; do as I say». To people like Kim Jong-un and his generals, this sort of policy is not only inequitable but deliberately insolent. It leads to increasing resentment which is further fuelled by such immature antics as the South Korean airshow.
The North Korean people are told by their leaders that «The US imperialists keep letting their nuclear strategic bombers fly over South Korea in a bid to seek an opportunity of mounting a preemptive nuclear attack» and not unnaturally they believe it. What Washington doesn’t understand is that fist-shaking flypasts are entirely counter productive, but it still regards B-1 bombers as flavour of the month.
The problem for the United States is that the flavour of B-1 bombers leaves a nasty taste in the mouths of those they are meant to threaten. It isn’t just fat Kim and his generals who are angered by the Pentagon’s amateur efforts to intimidate them. Other B-1 deployments and similar confrontational operations designed to «provide an example of the full range of US military capabilities» might succeed in doing that — but they also have the effect, as North Korea announced, of encouraging their target countries to be «ready to counter-attack enemies if they make a provocation».
By Brian Cloughley
British and Australian armies’ veteran, former deputy head of the UN military mission in Kashmir and Australian defense attaché in Pakistan