Saturday, April 15, 2017

Singapore's homeland security forces on high alert amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula

In the coming days, we will know if all that talk about growing or crimping North Korea's nuclear weapons capability is all bluff and bluster.

One side wants to set off a nuclear device. The other has threatened pre-emptive strikes to stop it.

Should war break out between North Korea and the United States, Singapore may have to rely on more than deft diplomacy to stay out of the fight.

It will be hard to stay neutral, not when US air and naval units routinely use facilities here to refuel warplanes and warships, and as a rest and recreation stopover.

Make no mistake: Pyongyang knows this.

The US Navy aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, that is now an irritant to Pyongyang, cut short her visit here earlier this month to set course for the seas around Korea.

If and when the shooting starts, our island nation's homeland security forces will need to stay on their guard should North Korea expand its sphere of operations against American military units stationed in the region. US military personnel who use facilities in Singapore could be hit, along with Singaporeans in the vicinity of any attack who could end up as collateral damage.

American forces in the Lion City may be outside the range rings of North Korean missiles, but Pyongyang has other options to make its presence felt.

This is the price Singapore pays for helping the US military sustain its presence in the Asia-Pacific.

While it may sound alarmist, the record of direct action initiated against perceived threats or enemies of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - as North Korea is formally known - serves as a reminder to the type of security situations our security forces could face.

The poisoning of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of DPRK ruler Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur, is a case in point. Creatively executed by proxies and shrugged off by North Korea due to the lack of credible evidence, the assassination is yet another example of an operation staged far from the Korean peninsula.

In 1983, the bombing of the Martyr's Mausoleum in Rangoon, Burma, pointed to a plot hatched by Pyongyang. Four South Korean ministers were killed along with more than a dozen people after a bomb rigged for visiting South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan exploded minutes before he was due to pay his respects at the mausoleum. Individuals said to be from North Korea were captured and implicated in the plot, which the DPRK denied.

While US military forces in Singapore are far from the Korean peninsula and are hard to target, we need to stay vigilant. These units are located within protected areas - key installations in military parlance - which are guarded round-the-clock by Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Singapore Police Force (SPF) units.

Our vanguards: The SAF's Island Defence Task Force and the SPF's Protective Security Command.

Their nemesis: Individuals or groups operating out of uniform and wielding tactics that do not discriminate between military or civilian targets. Their concept of operations involves scenarios that can be plausibly denied. Oblivious to established laws and norms of civilised warfare, these operatives are likely to be highly-motivated and well-trained in the use of firearms, explosives and close combat tactics and techniques. They would also have been indoctrinated in the art of escape and evasion. Man for man, it would be like pitting special forces against citizen soldiers in the midst of serving out their full-time national service.

That's the good news.

A worst-case scenario could involve a device like a dirty bomb - an explosive device laced with radioactive material to maximise its lethality - to knock out high-value assets like visiting US Navy warships. A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier could represent an important enough strategic target where the end justifies the means.

To redress this imbalance, Singapore's intelligence services under various ministries must work together to give SAF and SPF units early warning of impending threats. Truth be told, such warning may not be ample. This means we may get wind of the plot only after it is underway.

If the worst happens, we will need to rely on intelligence services to piece together how the attack unfolded and to identify its authors.

As tension escalates on the Korean peninsula, defence observers fear the toll that could be exacted on both sides of the 38th parallel should deterrence fail will be enormous.

The fallout for the rest of the region will likely be devastating.

North Koreans killing South Koreans would be like brother killing brother.

And that notion hasn't stopped hostile action before, has it?

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