The Two Koreas Step Back From the Brink
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Tuesday, June 15, 2010
HE UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL MET behind closed doors Monday to see South Korean Ambassador Park In Kook and a team of investigators present their case on the ChonAn, the South Korean corvette that was sunk in March, which they claim was caused by a surprise North Korean submarine attack. The North Koreans were given the chance to respond and reportedly called the claims a “fabrication.” They are expected to deliver a fuller response on Tuesday.
Aside from the fire and brimstone that can be expected from Pyongyang’s rhetorical response, the meeting served to highlight the fact that the two Koreas have stepped back from the brink. There is no longer the sudden scare felt in the immediate aftermath of the ship’s sinking or the heightened sense of danger that was pervasive after the South made its allegations official in late May. The geopolitical maneuvering that characterizes the region will continue, but there is no longer a crisis to handle.
The reasons lie in the region’s current geopolitical configuration. From the first few days after the ship’s sinking, Seoul knew it would have to build a meticulous case, based on painstakingly acquired evidence from the seafloor and the wreckage, if it were to have a chance to corral the international community into supporting tough countermeasures against the North. This process lasted through April and half of May. Of course, winning support would be complicated, since in this context, the “international community” consists of the members of the six-party grouping (the Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States) that makes on-again, off-again attempts to convince Pyongyang to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons. When the results were announced, the two states that were not included in the fact-finding mission — Russia and China — predictably resisted lending support to Seoul’s charges. Russia reviewed the facts and deemed them inconclusive, while China avoided reviewing them to prevent the need to make a decision.
The United States and Japan did lend support to Korea’s formal accusations in May, but even here South Korea ran up against constraints rather than enablers. It immediately became clear that even these two allies were not willing to endorse Seoul, to the point that it had no restraints in how far it went with its punitive actions. The Japanese decided not to present jointly at the United Nations a plan for punishing Pyongyang. Instead, it suggested tightening unilateral sanctions on the North, which amounted to little more than increasing controls on remittances from North Koreans living in Japan back to North Korea.
Meanwhile, the United States, which had allegedly held Seoul back in the immediate aftermath of the event, pledged enhanced military-to-military ties with South Korea and new anti-submarine warfare coordination and exercises in the Yellow Sea. This robust response gave the Chinese jitters, but also distanced the United States from a hard line. Washington rejected rumors that it would dispatch an aircraft carrier to the sea, and took other more subtle steps to calm the South down and avoid escalating the situation further.
“South Korea is not pursuing the ChonAn incident, but knows full well it was not North Korea’s last provocation.”
By June it had become apparent that the South Koreans were no longer even seeking new United Nations sanctions against the North. Given the resistance South Korea received from China and Russia, it instead sought merely a strongly worded statement. Further punishment would have to be meted out by Seoul and Washington alone.
The South is well aware of the limitations of its own unilateral sanctions against the North, since the North had, previous to the incident, revoked several points of cooperation in the relationship that the South theoretically could have used as leverage to exert pressure. For instance, the Kaesong joint economic zone between the two states remains intact, however often it has become a pawn of tensions on the peninsula. In addition, personnel changes in the upper echelons of both the North’s and the South’s militaries in recent weeks have enabled both states to claim to have rectified past wrongs.
None of this is to say that South Korea will not continue to seek retribution, only that most of that retribution from now on will come in the form of rhetoric, and the substantial parts will be carefully managed by the United States so as not to risk triggering an inter-Korean crisis, or a crisis with a suspicious China. Seoul’s actions, and those of the other players, reflect the bad options inherent in the Korean predicament. Neither Korea wants to ignite an internecine war; Beijing does not want a disastrous collapse on its border, or to give the United States and its allies an excuse to push up directly against it; and Japan does not wish to see its security undermined by any of the various possibilities. The United States, the one player with the most room for maneuver and the most distance from the fallout of any catastrophe on the peninsula, has far too many concerns (including its domestic economy and foreign engagements), to be willing to open itself to another.
Despite what was in all likelihood an unprovoked torpedo from the North, the major pieces remain in the same place on the chessboard. The players have refrained from bigger moves partly because the region’s security situation inherently verges on instability, and partly because the North has managed superbly to frighten everyone involved with its alternating displays of irrationality, aggression and desperation. Also, North Korea has managed to prevent a unified front against it with occasional offers of cooperation. There is even greater fear among outsiders as the country approaches a leadership transition and rumors spread of deepening rivalries between powerful factions. For these reasons Korea is not pursuing the ChonAn incident with vindictiveness, though it knows full well that it was by no means the last provocation it will face from the North.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Two Koreas: on the brink of war
Posted by Paulo Roberto de Almeida at 6/16/2010 04:11:00 PM
Labels: crisis, military danger, North Korea, South Korea
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