Conflict on the Korean Peninsula

December 6, 2010 9:03 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Recent coverage by the mainstream media on North Korea’s shelling on the South’s island of Yeonpyeong has followed a somewhat predictable pattern. Journalists and pundits have offered a variety of explanations ranging from those that see the shelling as an attempt by the North’s ruling leader Kim Jong-Il to secure the succession of his son Kim Jong-Un, to arguments that emphasise the North’s broader use of military clashes to distract the North’s population from the ongoing economic crisis. It has even been argued that the shelling was in response to the recent international prestige taken by the South as a result of its successful hosting of the G20 summit, an event which allegedly served to highlight the North’s backwardness. Whatever the explanation, the event has generally been understood in the Western media as yet another unwarranted and barely explicable provocation by the ‘paranoid’ and ‘unpredictable’ North against the long-suffering South.

The North, however, has been very clear on what it sees as the underlying roots of the clash. In a communiqué issued following the incident, the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army pointed to the South’s so-called ‘protect the country’ (hoguk) military manoeuvres in the West Sea around Yeonpyeong Island as the immediate cause. As reported in the South Korean media, the North had sent repeated requests to the South requesting a halt to this exercise involving 70,000 troops before the exchange of fire took place. Yet, this communiqué also pointed to underlying causes in the form of the ongoing dispute over maritime boarder separating the two countries.

The Northern Limit Line (NLL), unilaterally imposed by the United Nations Command following the Korean War, runs at a roughly equal distance between the South’s Yeonpyeong, Daechong and Paengnyeong islands and the North Korean mainland. These three islands in turn lay much closer to the North’s Hwanghae Province than they do to the Southern mainland, with the consequence that the NLL deprives the North of access to much of the West Sea, and in particular, to the rich crab fishing grounds to the south of the NLL.

Though the North has disputed the NLL for decades, it was in 1999 that the North redrew its own version of the maritime border further south, though without disputing the South’s sovereignty over the three islands and leaving a narrow corridor of access. Needless to say, the South did not accept this unilateral attempt to redraw the boundary, and over the past 11 years, there have been intermittent clashes in the West Sea as a result of the ongoing dispute. In 1999, following an incursion to the south of the NLL by North Korean patrol and accompanying fishing boats, a battle took place close to Yeonpyeong Island in which it is estimated that up to 100 North Korean naval personnel were killed. Clashes took place again in 2002 and 2009 in which casualties occurred on both sides though in smaller scale to the first Yeonpyeong battle in 1999.

Relations between the North and the South have taken a marked turn for the worse, however, following the May 2010 sinking of the Chonan corvette in which 46 South Korean sailors lost their lives. However, the causes of the sinking have been more controversial since it did not occur within the context of any obvious naval skirmish. Following an ‘international’ investigation involving countries friendly to South Korea, (the US, Canada, Britain, Sweden, Australia), a report referred to by Hillary Clinton , US Secretary of State, as “thorough and comprehensive scientific examination” was compiled (though never fully released) that claimed that the most likely explanation of the sinking was that of a North Korean torpedo. However, numerous academics and officials pointed to factual errors and inconsistencies in the report and the official explanation was met with widespread mistrust by the South Korean public.

Furthermore, Russia, which carried out its own independent tests, disputed the findings of the South Korean government and offered as an alternative the possibility of the ship’s contact with a sea mine in shallow water as a more plausible explanation. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the incident, the South proceeded to conduct massive joint military exercises with the United States in the West Sea as a deliberate ‘warning’ to the North. Given the escalating nature of these events, the use of the term ‘provocation’ solely to describe the North’s actions is one-sided to say the least.

The current deterioration of relations between North and South Korea is in marked contrast to the situation of a decade ago, in which the inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-Il and Kim Dae-Jung, South Korean President, raised hopes of a solution to this remaining vestige of the Cold War. Kim Dae-Jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ had recognised that Korea’s national division could not be solved through the tired and ineffective policy of containment and confrontation, but required positive measures of peace and mutual trust building. Unfortunately, this attempt to depart from the logic of national division fell victim to George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror.’

North Korea subsequently found itself labelled as part of the ‘axis of evil,’ reportedly as a result of nothing more than a public relations attempt by Bush to ensure that ‘axis of evil’ was not at the same time purely an ‘axis of Islam.’ Yet the North’s inclusion into the axis had devastating consequences on the nascent process of reconciliation taking place on the Korean peninsula. North Korea caught a glimpse of its own potential future in the US-led coalition’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and it responded by desperately seeking to acquire nuclear weapons as a last line of defence. Within the ideologically constrained realm of South Korean politics, the failure of the Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy to prevent the North’s nuclearization was seized upon by conservatives as evidence of the naivety and even ‘pro-North sympathies’ of the liberal political class rather than as the resulting of the hostility of the US towards inter-Korean reconciliation.

Whilst much attention has been directed at the leadership succession in the North, little attention has been directed at the rise of neo-conservatism and accompanying power shift in the South in contribution to the rising North-South tensions. The election of Lee Myung-Bak in 2008 brought an end to the Sunshine Policy that had characterised the past decade of South Korean politics. Lee adopted a more hardline position vis-Ã -vis the North, and sought to make the continuation of economic aid conditional upon denuclearisation.

At the same time, Lee sought to foster a specifically South Korean nationalism through, for example, attempting to rename the national holiday shared with the North that celebrates Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, to a so-called “National Construction Day” that emphasises the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, thereby implicitly celebrating national division. The Lee government has also taken an aggressive policy towards internal dissent prosecuting those who publicly question the government’s official version of North’s involvement the Chonan sinking. Lee has also strongly reaffirmed the US-South Korean alliance, as demonstrated by joint military exercises that are set to resume once again in the aftermath of the recent shelling of Yeonpyong Island. Not only has this contributed to the ongoing deterioration of North-South relations, but has also sent relations with China, which is South Korea’s largest trading partner and has a strong vested interested in maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula, to a new low.

Clearly the North is by no means an innocent party and should share much of the blame for the escalating tensions. Yet, the South, with infinitely more to lose in any full-blown military confrontation, has so far taken measures that seem set only to bring out a further deterioration of the security situation on the Korean peninsula. In response to Tuesday’s shelling, Lee Myung-Bak has called for “resolute countermeasures.” South Korea’s defence minister Kim Tae-Young was forced to resign following criticism of the navy’s response to the North’s attack as being slow and ineffective.

Though it is clear that neither the North or South wants a second Korean war, in which the casualties on both sides would be devastating, it also seems that as long as South Korea and the US refuse to return unconditionally to the negotiating table with the North, there is likely to be an ever escalating level of confrontation, and reconciliation and peace on the Korean peninsula will continue to be as distant as ever.

Kevin Gray is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex and author of “Korean Workers and Neoliberal Globalization” (Routledge, 2007).


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