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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 1, December 25, 2010 (Annual 2010)

Korean Peninsula: Looking through the Lenses

Friday 31 December 2010

by Vaddi Sudhakar

The Korean peninsula is once again sending an alarm signal to the international community that the region is highly sensitive. The firing of shells between the two Korean nations is a second major incident after the sinking of South Korea’s corvette Cheonan in March 2010. The series of incidents in the peninsula region have led the actors to push towards the brink of waging war in the North-East Asian region, primarily the Republic of Korea (South) and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North).

The dynamics of inter-Korean relations need to be understood in the light of the activities of the Presidents of the Republic of Korea and the political parties to which they were or are associated. Since Lee Myung-bak became the President of the Republic of Korea in Febraury 2008, there has been a paradigm shift in the inter-Korean relations. Lee has changed the entire policy towards the DPRK. He has been trying hard to isolate Pyongyang and thus bring about engagement with reciprocity. The President always looks for an opportunity to cut off all cooperation with the only country in the region which has been plagued by economic unrest for a considerable length of time.

The last and previous two ROK Presidents pursued a policy of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence towards the DPRK. The Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s Policy of Peace and Prospeirty for almost a decade (1998-2007) ensued some phenomenal positive developments between Pyongyang and Seoul. Moreover the two previous Presidents of the ROK visited Pyongyang and also participated in summit meetings with the DPRK as well. While dealing with the DPRK they even tried to balance their relationship with the US. The present President Lee, a conservative, belongs to the Grand National Party which sharply focuses on strong ROK-US defence relations, insists on delaying the wartime operational control of its own troops (OPCON)1 (which till date the ROK does not have as it rests with the US) and the approach towards the DPRK is purely confron-tationist. The real intention of the present conservative government is to isolate the DPRK in the international arena and let Pyongyang collapse both economically and politically.

The present crises have originated partly due to Lee’s concerted efforts to achieve that long term goal. Lee stopped aid to the DPRK as soon as he became the President thus ending the Engagement Policy initiated by President Kim Dae Jung and continued by his successor, Roh Moo-hyun.

The firing of shells by the DPRK on the ROK’s Yeonpyong Island on November 23 was primarily due to the naval team spirit exercises annual Hoguk exercises conducted by the US and ROK forces at the marine borders in the Yellow Sea where the Northern Limit Line (NLL) was unilaterally drawn by the UN in 1953. The western sea border is a constant source of military tension between the DPRK and ROK. Since the last decade three major defence clashes have occurred between them in this zone of disputed waters. The sinking of the ROK’s corvette Cheonan in March 2010 at Baengnyeong Island also took place in these disputed waters.

Prior to the firing of shells on the ROK island, the DPRK had sent a letter of protest over this largest ever drill2 and stated that the ongoing Hoguk exercises would be an attack against the DPRK. It also warned that it would not tolerate firing in what it regarded as its territorial waters. Despite the caution the ROK forces went ahead with a live fire exercise in the waters of Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong Islands within the ROK territory. They claimed that the shells fired were directed at waters in the South. Officially the DPRK Foreign Ministry stated that the bombardment was in retaliation to the ROK’s shelling into the sea that the DPRK claims as its own. This has led to the killing of two ROK marines and two civilians. The barrage of shells was one of the worst incidents between the two Koreas since the end of the Korean War in 1953 that had been concluded without a peace treaty. The North also suffered substantial damage due to attacks from the South, but the intensity of the damage was unknown. In response to this the DPRK sent a message expressing regret over the death of two civilians during the firing of shells.

PRIOR to this incident in the peninsula, the episode which is claiming to be one of the major happenings responsible for this hostile situation was the sinking of the ROK’s navel warship by a DPRK submarine. On May 20, 2010 the ROK announced that it has overwhelming evidence that one of its warships was sunk by the torpedo of a DPRK submarine. In this incident 46 sailors were killed.

However, many speculations have persisted about this allegation. A team of four submarine and torpedo experts from the Russian Navy gave a report after making an independent assessment of the March 26 warstrip sinking incident and refused to put the blame on North Korea. Probably the incident occurred due to friendly fire.3 This incident has been used by the present conservative government of Seoul to isolate the DPRK in the international arena. President Lee Myung-bak suffers from a DPRK-phobia and prefers a confrontational stance towards Pyongyang in contrast to the policy of peaceful coexistence and growing cooperation favoured by his recent predecessors. The policy rests on the goal of forcing the collapse of the DPRK and also the refusal to move ahead on cross-border economic projects. Forcing the DPRK to collapse was the main policy of the past Rightwing and military government to which Lee’s government has been historically associated with. The claim that the sinking of the Cheonan was due to North Korea’s torpedo attack only makes it easier for President Lee to drum up support for his confrontational stance.

The foreign policy of the conservative government led by President Lee has the collapse of the Pyong Yang regime as its objective. The fabricated Cheonan incident favours Lee in a number of ways. It helps it to build a vote-bank among the electorate in the mayoral elections of June 2010; propagate the idea of re-unifying the Korean peninsula by forcing the DPRK adminis-tration to collapse; cut off all trade relations; with the North; block the North’s use of the South shipping lanes; and also argue for imposing sanctions against Pyongyang, branding the DPRK as the South’s principal foe and announcing “It is time now for the North Korean regime change.”4 It further helped to delay the transfer of the wartime operational command from the United States to Republic of Korea until 2015.5 In July, soon after this incident, the joint US-ROK forces moved in on a large scale ever into the West Sea waters for the annual Hoguk exercises.

The 2010 exercises involved 70,000 troops from all four branches of the ROK military equipped with 600 tracked vehicles, 90 helicopters, 50 warships and 500 aircraft. An American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, led the joint military exercises.

As a deterrence act to the DPRK’s firing, the US and Japan began one of their biggest-ever military exercises in the region, mobilising more than 44,000 troops, hundreds of aircraft. The ROK has also decided to widen its military drills in the peninsula by joining with them for the first time since the exercises were started in 1986.

The deterrence act vis-à-vis the DPRK would definitely lead to escalation of the tension and push the region to the brink of war. The relevant parties need to exercise calm restraint and refrain from actions that exacerbate tensions in the world’s fastest-growing economic region. China is using its influence in the DPRK to ease tensions and has also proposed emergency consultations with representative of all six parties to resume the six-party talks. The Government of the ROK has to change its hostile policy towards the DPRK and start the open dialogue process with sincerity and integrity. The conservative President Lee’s ambitious plan of changing the regime in the North through the employment of force has already sought to hamper and stall all the rconciliation initiatives by the ROK’s previous Presidents. If the two Korea’s engage in fresh hostilities and embark on another war, that would result in inconceivable damage in the region. The gradual and peaceful unification based on dialogue is the only way out to evolve an amicable solution of the Korean problem to the satisfaction of all parties.

REFERENCES

1. In a special interview with the Yonhap News Agency on August 9, 2006, the ROK’s late President, Roh Moo-hyun, expressed his views on the self-reliant and independent foreign policy of the ROK. The ROK is the sole country that does not have complete operational control of its own troops. “Only when the ROK military has complete operational control, can we lead military talks with the North in future to build trust and ease tensions between the South and North,” he said. Due to his sincere efforts an agreement was signed in 2007 to the effect that the wartime operational control (OPCON) would be transferred to the ROK on April 17, 2012; this was postponed till 2015 due to the Cheonan incident.

2. “DPRK has sent a letter of protest over the drill,” said Kim Hee-jung, spokesperson for the ROK’s President Lee Myung-bak.

3. The Hindu, June 9, 2010.

4. For the full text of President’s Lee’s National Address see The Korea Times, May 24, 2010.

5. The ROK has peacetime control of its forces. In 2007 the US and ROK agreed that the wartime OPCON would be transferred on April 17, 2012; however, this agreement was severely criticised by the Rightwing conservatives.

Vaddi Sudhakar is a Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail: sudhajnu@gmail.com

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