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Tension in the Korean Peninsula escalates again

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • February 15, 2010

    The delicately maintained peace in the Korean peninsula once again looks fragile in the wake of the war of words and exchange of artillery fire along the disputed western sea border in the closing days of January 2010. Pyongyang apparently wanted to emphasize that the peninsula remains a war zone and exert pressure for a formal treaty to end the Korean War, a key demand before engaging in further denuclearisation talks.

    This incident highlights the volatility of the western waters in the Korean border. The so-called Northern Limit Line, a UN-drawn sea border accepted by the South but disputed by the North was the scene of the skirmishes. Though neither side reported any casualties, this incident follows a naval skirmish in November 2009. The western sea border, drawn by the US-led UN Command at the close of the Korean War is a constant source of tension between the two Koreas. The North insists that the line be moved further south. The disputed area is a rich fishing ground. During the May-June crab-catching season, when boats from both jostle for strategic positions, North Korean fishermen sometimes stray into the southern waters and South Korea normally repatriates them. The North’s armed protest this time around seemed to be primarily aimed at heightening military tensions and thereby put pressure on Washington to initiate measures for signing a Korean War peace treaty.

    A Peace Treaty is a coveted goal of Pyongyang. It argues that it is the absence of such a treaty that compelled it to develop nuclear weapons to cope with the threat from the United States. Washington and Pyongyang never had diplomatic relations because the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, thus leaving the peninsula technically at war. Pyongyang has argued that it would return to nuclear disarmament talks if a peace treaty is signed and the United States lifts sanctions. Both the United States and South Korea have rejected North Korea’s demand and insist that it must first return to disarmament negotiations and report progress in denuclearisation. So long as the North asserts its territorial claims and warns of military clashes on the western sea, both the United States and the South are unlikely to yield to its demand and instability would continue.

    Pyongyang’s strategy has been to heighten tension to draw the South into a dialogue and win economic concessions given its deteriorating economic conditions. The environment in the peninsula has been vitiated by harsh exchanges between the two Koreas. While the North has threatened a “holy war to blow away” the South, the South has warned of launching a pre-emptive military strike if it saw signs of an imminent nuclear attack from the North. Pyongyang did not elaborate on what a “holy war” might entail, but said it would involve “all our revolutionary military power and all Korean compatriots both in the North and the South and abroad.” North Korea had previously threatened a “holy war” against its external enemies, especially the United States. The two navies fought bloody skirmishes in the disputed waters in June 1999 and June 2002. Again, in November 10, 2009, a North Korean vessel retreated in flames after South Korean ships fired on it when it strayed across the line.

    Baengnyeong Island lies 10 miles from the North Korean shore. South Korean marines maintain their barracks behind hills facing the North as a precaution against any attack. Civilians, most of them fishermen, are trained to run to military bunkers and pick up arms if a North Korean attack begins. Such a situation makes the place volatile and disturbed. Previous South Korean governments played down these clashes out of a desire to avoid derailing the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North, but the present conservative president Lee Myung Bak has taken a sterner view. The Lee government’s position seems to be not to tolerate further provocation and, backed by a superiority in equipment, it wants to display assertiveness.

    Further Escalation

    South Korean defence minister Kim Tae-young warned that his country would launch a pre-emptive conventional strike against the North if there were clear indications of an impending nuclear attack. Speaking at a security seminar in Seoul in January 2010, Kim said: “A nuclear attack from the North would cause too much damage for us to react. We must detect signs, and if there is clear sign of attack, we must immediately strike. Unless it’s a case where we would sustain an attack but still could counterattack, we must strike first.” Kim made similar comments in 2008 when he was chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. He had then stated that North Korea is mixing dialogue with threats and that the South must adopt a strong stance while keeping the window open for dialogue. North Korea had responded to Kim’s 2008 statement with threats of war, vowing to reduce the South to “ashes”. And, not surprisingly, it has now accused South Korea of making “an open declaration of war.” North Korea has also responded with outrage, warning of war, after learning that the South was engaged in “contingency planning” in case of the collapse of the North Korean regime. Kim’s National Defence Commission had revised the earlier position on the premise that Kim Jong-Il’s uncertain health and the North’s economic woes have made the country more unstable. The “contingency plan” addressed five possibilities: the death of Kim; a coup; a popular uprising; a huge outflow of refugees; and more sanctions or military attacks from the outside. It also envisioned South Korea establishing on territory in the North an “administrative headquarters to liberate the North”.

    If the situation escalates into a war situation, North Korea would be a serious threat to the South even if it does not use nuclear weapons. Seoul, the South’s largest city and the capital, is within range of North Korean rockets and artillery deployed along the border, just 30 miles away. Military analysts in Seoul contend that if war breaks out in the peninsula, North Korean artillery would roll out of underground bunkers within minutes and rain shells leading to much of Seoul being wiped out. Though South Korea is under the US nuclear umbrella, which is likely to respond on the South’s behalf if war breaks out, yet neither the US military nor the US embassy in Seoul reacted to Kim’s comments.

    Amidst the escalating tension, Wi Sung-lac, South Korea’s top negotiator on security issues on the Korean peninsula, traveled to Washington to discuss with Stephen W. Bosworth, US special envoy on North Korea, the issue of bringing the North back to the SPT and ending its nuclear weapons programmes. As mentioned earlier, the North insists that lifting of sanctions and the signing of a peace treaty must precede any talks on the denuclearisation issue. After his return, Wi admitted that it was “difficult” to ascertain the North’s intention but hoped that Pyongyang would soon return to the SPT.

    It is strange that even when such a war of words is going on, both Koreas are engaged in talks about improvements at their jointly operated industrial park at Kaesong, a North Korean border town north of Seoul. About 110 South Korean factories employ 42,000 North Korean workers at Kaesong in a pilot project to combine South Korean capital with North Korean labour. The future of the venture has been clouded by political tensions between the two sides. Yet, South Korea’s policy has been to help the North economically. Amidst tensions, Seoul resumed shipments of aid, mostly fertilizer. Soon the siblings talked, with the North agreeing to ease restrictions on South Korean companies and personnel at the economic complex at Kaesong. Both are also expected to open talks soon on resuming tours to the Mount Kumkang region, which was suspended in July 2008 after a South Korean woman was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier when she wandered outside the tourist area. The significance of the North Korean shelling not endangering a South Korean vessel returning with a load of silica through nearby waters from the North Korean port of Haeju on the Yellow Sea needs to be kept in mind while studying the love-hate relationship between the two countries. The North Korean Red Cross also had no hesitation in accepting 10,000 tons of food aid offered by its South Korean counterpart.

    China Factor

    Even as Pyongyang states that talks on denuclearisation will start only after a peace treaty is signed and sanctions are lifted, Beijing and Moscow indirectly boosted the morale of the North by saying that the North is not going to return to SPT unless the United States agrees to peace talks and helps lift UN sanctions. Pyongyang has floated more than 20 peace proposals since the end of the Korean War to replace the 1953 armistice. In the 1960s, North Korea insisted on a North-South peace treaty if the United States withdraws from the South. However, after the landmark South-North Basic Agreement was concluded in 1991, Pyongyang shifted tactics; it demanded direct negotiations with the United States and the dissolution of the UN body overseeing the armistice agreement. Since then, North Korea slowly and steadily has been working on a nuclear device and demanding a peace treaty as a precondition for denuclearisation. Pyongyang reasons that in the absence of a peace treaty, it would continue to perceive a “constant” threat of war from the United States and therefore nuclear weapons are necessary to protect the country from external attacks. The outside world does not believe in Pyongyang’s sincerity, arguing that if the North is sincere and genuinely wants peace it should abide by the nuclear disarmament roadmap detailed in its September 19, 2005 agreement in the SPT, return to negotiations without preconditions and promise not to undertake additional nuclear or long-range missile tests.

    As its economic condition deteriorates, North Korea seems to want to date with the United States rather than elope, while struggling to keep a thin lifeline connected to China. As regards the United States, the Obama administration has apparently failed to comprehend the immensity of Chinese influence over Pyongyang. Because of its own long-term strategic vision, Beijing would be the first to reach the North just across the Yalu River in the event of a regime collapse and strengthen its stranglehold vis-à-vis other powers and would not want to lose out this strategic advantage in a possible changed situation. In the short term, Beijing has both the ability to bridge as well as widen the gap between Washington and Pyongyang, if such a policy suits its own interests. As an aspiring global power, its long term rival seems to be the United States, not any other regional actors in the Korean peninsula.

    As it transpires, China is not keen on a nuclear deal since that would perpetuate and maximize US influence as well as national interests in the Korean peninsula. As its economy continues to grow, its strategic interests and influence also continue to expand. China’s long term vision is to deny the United States preponderant influence in the region, though Asia may not rejoice at the prospect of being led by an undemocratic China. With Russia losing out in the Cold War and Japan in decline, China seems determined to return to the so-called Golden Age. North Korea provides yet another platform for Beijing to play its strategic game. India has little direct interest in the developments in the Korean peninsula. Yet, it is time for Indian strategic thinkers to watch out for China’s designs!