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Warning Shot: America’s strike on China’s embassy 25 years ago sent a strong signal to North Korea

On May 7, 1999 a B-2 Spirit bomber flying on a CIA-directed mission launched a JDAM satellite guided bomb on the Chinese embassy in the Yugoslav capital Belgrade, destroying the office of the military attaché and causing 27 casualties. Although it was not known at the time, CIA Director George Tenet later confirmed that the carefully planned 30 hour sortie, launched from from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, not only had been orchestrated and the target coordinates provided by his agency, but that it was the only air strike of the Kosovo War directed where his agency had such a role and was carried out outside of NATO. New information on the attack supporting suspicions of its intentional nature continued to emerge over the next 12 months, as has been covered in detail in multiple previous articles. While the possible incentives for the attack and its consequences both for Sino-U.S. relations and for Chinese security planning have been detailed extensively in the past, less well explored were its significant consequences for the then-tense relations between North Korea and the United States.

The global deployment of the U.S. Armed Forces and those of its Western allies across seven continents means that major military events involving them in any conflict often have reverberations on multiple other fronts. Over two years of very widespread Western warnings of the global importance of the signals sent to both allies and adversaries by NATO members’ actions in Ukraine are a prominent recent case in point. This is particularly significant, however, in the case of actions which can be construed as shows of force, particularly when these actions result in massive death and destruction or when they represent major violations of international laws or norms. A notable example preceding the B-2 strike was Operation Desert Storm, during which U.S. and allied forces were estimated to caused killed over 200,000 Iraqis in a campaign that lasted just 44 days, and which was not only added urgency to China’s military modernization, but was also cited as having sent a strong signal to North Korea. Amid subsequent heightened tensions between Pyongyang and Washington later that year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell implied that the campaign against Iraq was expected to have sent a strong signal to the North Korean leadership, stating that if they “missed Desert Storm, this is a chance to catch a rerun.”

Three decades later on January 3, 2020 a CIA drone strike assassinating Iran’s most senior military official Lieutenant General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq was followed just hours later by a warning by Defense Secretary Mark Esper that the U.S. was ready to take military action against North Korea should it resume strategic weapons testing. The timing was widely seen to have been intentional. This was followed by a statement by State Secretary Mike Pompeo warning that the assassination, which was widely deemed unprovoked and illegal, if not a war crime, was part of “a bigger strategy” involving “the restoration of deterrence” that was not confined to Iran, but had implications for other leading American adversaries as well.

At a particularly sensitive time for U.S.-North Korean relations, and long before the country had the nuclear weapons and long range missiles needed to seriously deter an American attack, the bombing of the Chinese embassy could similarly be seen to have supported the achievement of a “restoration of deterrence” much as other American uses of force were. The Bill Clinton administration had in 1994 seriously considered launching a major strike on North Korean nuclear facilities in the Yongbyon area, with F-117 stealth fighters and Tomahawk cruise missiles set to have played a central role in the attack much as they were heavily relied on the penetrate Iraqi air defenses three years prior. Where in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm it was widely warned that ballistic missile arsenals, such North Korea’s substantial one, could leave tactical aircraft like the F-117 vulnerable to strikes on their bases, the introduction of the B-2 bomber from 1997 and its combat debut over Yugoslavia, 44 days into which it bombed China’s embassy, were a game changer for America’s offensive capabilities using stealth aircraft. 

While the F-117 was notoriously maintenance intensive, leaving it vulnerable to attacks on nearby bases, and North Korea’s new Hwasong-7 medium range ballistic missile had ensured all possible bases were within striking range, the B-2 faced no similar vulnerability. Striking from the continental United States as it had done against Yugoslavia, but having also in 1998 demonstrated the ability to be forward based at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, to generate a higher sortie rate against East Asian targets, its bases remained well out of reach – leaving the North Koreans similarly helpless to retaliate as they had been when B-29s had bombed their country from Japan four decades prior. Flying from the U.S., and being by far the most difficult aircraft in the world to detect, the B-2’s precision targeting capabilities and massive weapons payload allowed the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of 21 aircraft to destroy as many targets as it would usually take an entire fleet, with each able to deliver the ordinance of approximately eight F-117s – namely sixteen B61 nuclear or JDAM conventional bombs against sixteen different targets. Until North Korea developed intermediate and intercontinental range missile capabilities able to target Guam and the continental United States in 2016 and 2017, the B-2 thus remained an existential threat against which Pyongyang could not respond. 

Tensions remained high in 1999 over implementation of the Agreed Framework agreement reached in 1994, under which North Korea was bound to halt construction of a new nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and place its existing facility there under international safeguards. The United States had in turn been bound to normalize ties, remove economic sanctions, provide oil as aid to compensate for freezing of the North Korean nuclear industry, and eventually deliver two ‘proliferation proof’ nuclear reactors allowing those that could be used for nuclear weapons development at Yongbyon to be dismantled. While North Korea was near unanimously found by Western assessments to have adhered to its terms, the Clinton administration had failed to move towards normalization of ties, lift economic sanctions or move ahead with construction of nuclear reactors. Demands from the American foreign policy community and on Capitol Hill for greater access to North Korean nuclear facilities, as well as the imposition of restrictions on North Korea’s development of a ballistic missile deterrent, were at the center of talks in 1999. Pyongyang faced pressure to accept new restrictions and greater inspections in return for Washington living up to more of the terms it had been bound to under the Agreed Framework. 

Ultimately the results of negotiations in 1999-2000 proved highly favorable for Washington, with Pyongyang placing a moratorium on the testing of medium range missiles on September 13, 1999 and subsequently agreeing to a range of new concessions on its nuclear and missile programs during talks with Secretary of State Madeline Albright in October the following year. While the George W. Bush declined to see the agreements through after it was inaugurated three months later, and subsequently suspended fuel shipments under the Agreed Framework in 2002 leading Pyongyang to withdraw from the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons a month later, by that time momentum in the United States towards military action against Iraq was too great to reverse. America’s costly quagmire in Iraq provided the closest thing to a security guarantee Pyongyang had until it could further enhance its nuclear deterrent. 

While NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia was acknowledged even by its strongest advocates to have been illegal, and had been ardently opposed by China, India, Russia among others, the fact that it not only proceeded and caused over $100 billion in material damage to civilian infrastructure, but also involved a precision attack on the embassy of Pyongyang’s sole remaining treaty ally and security guarantor, sent a very strong message. Neither international laws and norms, Sino-Russian consensus, nor North Korea’s then-limited missile deterrent capabilities, could guarantee security, which made a deal to reduce tensions important to reach even if undesirable compromises were needed. The bombing of Yugoslavia, and in particular the demonstration of the B-2’s capabilities and of Washington’s willingness to cross all lines militarily to secure its objectives, had left Pyongyang in a weaker negotiating position at a time when it was highly vulnerable. While the B-2’s successor the B-21 will enter service in a world where North Korea’s intercontinental range nuclear deterrent is well established, Pyongyang’s position when the B-2 joined the Air Force and made its combat debut was very much weaker, with the new aircraft and the nature of the targets it was used to strike significantly exacerbating perceptions of vulnerability.

Views expressed in this guest column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

May 13, 2024 at 07:30AM

by DailyNK(North Korean Media)

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