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The Korean Peninsula: a place that just keeps on giving – in all the wrong ways

The Korean Peninsula: a place that just keeps on giving – in all the wrong ways

News coming out of Korea is increasingly disturbing. On 26 March, the Cheonan, a South Korean naval patrol craft, was literally split apart by an explosion most now believe was caused by a North Korean torpedo. This has not only halted nascent rapprochement between the North and South, but played upon old hostilities – and brought the shutters of secrecy down with a bang.

Before that, there were those North Korean nuclear and missile tests that have been giving the Japanese (let alone South Koreans, Americans and maybe even the Chinese and Russians) some sleepless nights. While Pyongyang’s military and government officials have refused to accept responsibility for sinking the Cheonan, some media reports have said the crew that fired the torpedo have been given medals and their unit the equivalent of a citation for this “heroic” act.

Most recently, North Korea announced it had severed the hotline between it and the South to deal with naval incidents and that the US and its Korean ally “will be drowned” in the “sea of blood” – should they try  a military option in response to the sinking of South Korea’s vessel.

American secretary of state Hillary Clinton has been in Seoul to bolster the South Koreans, bearing 400 pages of documentation on the attack, before she headed off to Beijing as part of a highly visible US delegation to discuss tensions on the Korean Peninsula as well as crucial trade and finance topics.

Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (C) visits the Ryesonggang Youth No. 1 water power plant at an undisclosed place in North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea’s official news agency KCNA February 1, 2009. KCNA did not state expressly the date when the picture was taken. REUTERS/KCNA (NORTH KOREA)

Meanwhile, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, has headed for Seoul for separate discussions about the ship’s sinking. While China is North Korea’s traditional ally, South Korea is actually now a major part of China’s industrial and economic networks as ties continue to grow closer and warmer. What’s going on here? And where did all this come from?

There are now only three disputed boundaries or territories left over from the defeat of the Axis nations in 1945, and all three are in northeast Asia.

The first is Taiwan that became the home of the defeated Nationalist Chinese government after the communist victory on mainland China. 

Then there is a group of four small islands just north of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most main island, that, depending on who you listen to, were or were not part of the transfer of the Kuriles back to the Soviet Union in 1945 in accordance with the Yalta and Potsdam decisions, after the Russians had lost them in 1905. Not surprisingly, the Japanese insist on calling these four smallish islands “The Northern Territories”, while the Russians insist they are the “Southern Kuriles”. In fact, there is a windswept hilltop observation site that overlooks the Sea of Okhotsk where one can stand and see those islands – providing the fog and mist have lifted – and many Japanese tourists do just that during their summer tours of Hokkaido.

And then of course there is Korea. Korea is undoubtedly the big kahuna among the disputes left over from World War II. Korea was officially a Japanese possession from 1910 until the end of World War II, and at that point the victors drew a temporary surrender line for Japanese troops at the 38th line of latitude. The Russian army took control north of that line, while the US assumed responsibility south of it. The initial assumption in the chummy-chummy days after the end of the war was that power would eventually be transferred to an elected Korean government for the entire peninsula. And that would be that.

Photo: Navy soldiers stand guard near the wreckage of the naval vessel Cheonan, which was sunk on March 26 near the maritime border with North Korea, at the Second Fleet Command’s naval base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, May 19, 2010. South Korea said on May 20 evidence was overwhelming that a North Korean submarine fired the torpedo that sank the navy ship in March, killing 46 sailors. Picture taken May 19, 2010. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

Events obviously didn’t follow the script. In 1950, a three-year military conflict pitted South Korean and US troops, along with those from numerous other nations including a South African air contingent, under the UN flag against North Korean and Chinese troops, along with significant elements of Soviet air power. By the time the armistice was signed in 1953, the temporary division of the peninsula had hardened into a more permanent one, the so-called demilitarised zone (DMZ). But it remains only a ceasefire line and not a de jure international boundary.

The DMZ separates the Republic of Korea from its northern antagonist, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and more than a million troops face each other across this dividing line, including nearly 30,000 US troops still stationed in South Korea. On the southern side, many of these soldiers are necessarily stationed in the gap of 50km that separates the DMZ from the capital of Seoul. Military planners in South Korea (and the Pentagon) continue to focus intently on the likelihood that, in the event of another invasion, the North would attempt to devastate and capture the capital – just as happened twice during the Korean War.

Photo: South Korean soldiers chant slogans before they conduct a search operation near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating South Korea from North Korea in Hwacheon, about 120 km (75 miles) northeast of Seoul, May 24, 2010 in this handout photo released by the South Korean army. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said on Monday North Korea would pay the price for sinking a South Korean naval ship and that the South would invoke its right to defend itself if Pyongyang waged aggression again. REUTERS

Just beyond the DMZ, the US and Korean military have placed innumerable land mines, designed to slow or even stop a military advance by North Korea. The effort to halt a North Korean invasion of the South with land mines is understood to be a key element in the American reluctance to sign the treaty outlawing land mines.

Paradoxically, the zone, stretching from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, has become a de facto wildlife sanctuary, even in the face of South Korea’s East Asian-style capitalist industrialisation that has reshaped most of the rest of the country.

The DMZ itself is not without major military significance as well – or at least the space underneath it. A tour of military installations in the vicinity of the DMZ – from the Southern side of course – inevitably includes a visit to one of the tunnels the North Korean military has constructed (and that the South eventually discovered) directly under the DMZ to create an  opportunity to outflank the South Korean army above ground. Actually, the word tunnel understates the thing – the one The Daily Maverick visited was more like one side of the M1. It has lanes suitable for a column of tanks and other heavy military vehicles to head for Seoul and victory for North Korea’s President-for-life, the self-described “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-Il.

Photo: Kim Il-sung (L), founder of North Korea, chats with his son Kim Jong-il at a mass rally to celebrate foundation of the communist country in Pyongyang in this September 1983 photo. Kim Il-sung, who died on July 8, 1994 at age 82, remains “Eternal President” of the state he founded with Soviet help after World War Two. His son, Kim Jong-il, has ruled North Korea for the last 16 years. REUTERS

But, despite this fraught history, over the past decade or so, a gradual trend towards more normal relations between the two nations had begun to gain traction. Concurrently, China has become an integral part of the supply and value-adding chains of South Korean industry. This growing economic interdependence has helped bolster relations between China and South Korea as major Korean companies constructed dozens of factories in China’s industrial zones. One way of measuring this growing economic inter-penetration was the number of Beijing – Seoul air connections which have grown from a mere handful a few years ago to more than 250 a week.

In 1998, South Korean president Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine” policy opened the way for the beginnings of rapprochement between North and South. South Korean industrial zones inside North Korea, carefully controlled tourism visits to the North, thoroughly managed family reunions and a range of limited cross-border trade initiatives were all part of this reaching out. It was predicated on the understanding that, regardless of their political and economic differences, with the Korean War now two generations past, there was a need to kick-start a relationship between people who, after all, share the same ethnicity and historical traditions stretching back millennia – even if there was little that bridged their contemporary economic, social or political systems.

However, current South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s policies are  less open to an automatic, conciliatory approach to North Korea and it is possible this change in orientation may have encouraged the North Koreans to be more confrontational – although we’ll probably never really know until North Korea’s archives are opened to all – sometime around the year 3010.

At the moment, the tit-for-tat response pattern between the two nations on the Korean Peninsula continues. Most recently South Korea announced a major naval anti-submarine exercise – something sure to lessen tension in the area. South Korea, backed by the US, Japan and others, has also started to carry out punitive measures such as cutting trade (although North Korea has been making moves to shutter a South Korea-operated economic zone inside North Korea as well) and prohibit the docking of North Korea’s cargo ships. Experts say this level of response is probably the strongest they can do, short of limited military action. These measures, in turn, appear to have sparked North Korean Major General Pak Chan Su to tell the APTNews in Pyongyang on behalf of North Korea’s government, “We will never tolerate the slightest provocations of our enemies, and will answer that with all-out war. This is the firm standpoint of our People’s Army.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Photo: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (C), defence minister Kim Tae-young (front R) and other officials walk away at the War Memorial of Korea near a U.S. army base in Seoul after Lee delivered a speech May 24, 2010. Lee said on Monday North Korea would pay the price for sinking a South Korean naval ship and that the South would invoke its right to defend itself if Pyongyang waged aggression again. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

A good chunk of the impetus for this new relationship-building – at least until the Cheonan was sunk – also stemmed from an appreciation of the real dangers of an ongoing military stand-off, and from North Korea’s drive to test and develop a nuclear weapon of its own. At least initially, the evolution of this relationship-building meant that negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions had, at first, promised to lead to a broader agreement that would provide North Korea with nuclear fuel under a carefully controlled regimen, as well as additional fuel oil for conventional power plants, all to relieve North Korea’s perpetual electric power shortages.  Some of the relationship-building also came from large donations of food during especially severe food shortages in the North a few years ago. Agriculture in the North has always been beset by collectivised farming’s usual failures, as well as the fact that most of the land in North Korea is unsuitable for agriculture. 

But, much of the rhythm of this peninsular warming-up was also dependent on the vagaries of North Korea’s political leadership. In a nation with a heavy-handed cult of personality designed to idolise the man at the top of the pyramid and the dominance of the military at many levels of government, it has often been impossible for foreign observers to even learn who was responsible for any particular decision in that nation. The nation’s first leader, Kim Il-Sung, was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jr. is a man whose prime interest apparently centres on being a near-obsessive film buff (it is said he has 20,000 films in his personal collection), enjoying a nice meal of lobster washed down with a good brandy, carefully combing his imposing pompadour hairdo and using shoe lifts to make him seem more impressive than his usual 1.6m height.

However, Kim Jong-Il is rumoured to be suffering from a variety of medical conditions such that some observers argue this current spate of confrontational behaviour is actually an effort to bolster the nearly invisible military credentials of Kim Jong-Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, the heir apparent. Alternatively, this pattern of repeated up-to-the-brink confrontations may also be part of North Korea’s efforts to extract more concessions from its negotiating interlocutors (the US, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea) over its nuclear ambitions, its continuing energy needs, its desire to obtain carefully managed investment and food aid and, perhaps most importantly, more respect from the rest of the world.

By J. Brooks Spector

For more background on the circumstances in North Korea, read Marcus Noland’s essay in Foreign Policy magazine. For more detail on the current crisis, see the AP, the AP, the AP, the AP, the AP, the New York Times, the New York Times, the BBC, the BBC, the BBC, the BBC and the BBC.

Also, Deputy Director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics (one of America’s most influential think tanks) Marcus Noland discusses current situation in North Korea.  Noland is one of America’s leading experts on Korea.

Main photo: man looks at a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during the Korean War exhibition at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul May 23, 2010. The United Nations Command (UNC) has launched an investigation into whether North Korea violated the Korean War armistice by sinking one of the South’s naval ships, the U.N. body said on Saturday. North Korea denounced the probe as a “bogus mechanism.” REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak


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