North Korea has fired artillery shells onto a South Korean island across its disputed western maritime border, injuring both civilians and soldiers and property. South Korea has returned fire and raised its military alert to its highest non-wartime status. The Northern Limit Line (NLL) is disputed by North Korea and comes as South Korea’s annual Hoguk military exercises get under way. The incident took place with renewed talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme, including revelations of an active uranium enrichment site and preparations for another nuclear test.
Taken together, the nuclear demonstration and the attack are widely interpreted as an effort to bolster the credentials of Kim Jong-un, the heir apparent as the country’s leader, and the son and grandson of the only two men who have run the country. When his father, Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s ailing leader, was establishing his credentials, the North conducted a similar series of attacks.
Is this not common in the region?
Yes, this is not the most serious incident between the two nations. This incident comes eight months after the sinking of a South Korean warship. In March 2010 the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, was sailing close to the disputed maritime border when an explosion split it in two. 46 soldiers were killed. Investigators concluded that what sank the ship was a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine.
Why are their tensions between North and South Korea?
Tensions go back to the manner in which the victorious allies determined the division of the Korean Peninsula. Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and ruled over it until 1945. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the UN constructed the administration of Korea. The UN divided the peninsula into two zones of administration: the Soviet Union to the north and the US to the south. North Korea refused to participate in a UN supervised election held in the south in 1948, which led to the creation of separate Korean governments for the two occupation zones. Both North and South Korea claimed sovereignty over the Korean Peninsula as a whole, which led to the Korean War.
North Korea invaded the South, using Soviet tanks and weaponry, China also joined the war on the side of Communist North Korea, the threat of communist expansion led to the US to defend South Korea and by 1953 the US ended the war in a ceasefire agreement at more or less the same boundary, with South Korea making slight territorial gains. The two countries never signed a peace treaty, the two Koreas remain technically at war, since no peace treaty was signed after the conflict. Today the Korean Peninsula remains divided, the Korean Demilitarized Zone acts as the de facto border
Ever since, tensions have remained between the two Korea’s. During the Cold war both were patrons of external powers but border skirmishes and assassination attempts have become the norm. The North failed in several assassination attempts on South Korean leaders, most notably in 1968, 1974 and the Rangoon bombing in 1983. Tunnels were frequently found under the DMZ and war nearly broke out over the Axe Murder Incident at Panmunjeom in 1976. In the late 1990s, with the South having rapidly developed and with North Korea having strong rulers with a firm grip on the country, the two nations began to engage publicly for the first time, in what has come to be known as the Sunshine Policy.
North Korea thereafter began a uranium enrichment program in order to possess nuclear weapons which have exacerbated tension between South Korea and the North.
Is there any international dimension to the crisis?
International involvement on the Korean peninsula is the fundamental problem in the region and continues to infuriate the conflict. The Korean War ended with The UN declaring the Korean peninsula divided between North and South between the Soviet Union and China on one hand and the US on the other.
Whilst the highest-level contact the government of North Korea has had with the US was with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who visited Pyongyang in 2000, the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. Then in 2002, George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an ‘axis of evil’ and an ‘outpost of tyranny,’ which has defined US actions against North Korea ever since.
With North Korea developing Nuclear weapons the US position has always been very clear. The US in 1986 demanded detailed information on North Korea’s nuclear programme, which North Korea refused to hand over to the US, instead it gave those detailed documents running into 19,000 pages to China. An agreement was reached between the US and North Korea in 1994 regarding North Korea’s nuclear reactors. This agreement called for North Korea to bring to halt its nuclear programme and shut down its Yongbyon reactors. This was in exchange for the US supplying two light-water type reactors. But the US failed to honor its part of the promise and hence North Korea resumed its nuclear activities. This has been the case ever since, the US offers a range of promises which do not materialize so North Korea continues with its nuclear programme.
As put it in an Al Jazeera interview Robert Gates outlined the US position: “The United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state.” He warned against the flaring of a nuclear arms race and said: “We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region, or on us.” On the issue of nuclear proliferation, Gates said: “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and its allies, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.”
China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner and is the country which holds the greatest sway over the secretive Pyongyang regime. China has supported the regime since the 1950’s and forms part of the six-party gathering which comprises the North & South Koreas, America, Russia and Japan which negotiates on behalf of the US with North Korea to find a peaceful resolution to the security concerns as a result of the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
What are the US and China really attempting to achieve with North Korea?
The US has been considerably silent to the nuclear progress in Pyongyang compared to Iran, whilst China has been pursuing six party talks trying to ensure its back door is not set on fire. The statements from such meetings have been contradictory where china has been pessimistic about the talks with distance on most issues whilst the US has continually remarked ‘successful negotiations’. The New York Times commented ‘America’s opening gambits in this process have exasperated a stalemate, as these positions have been so unworkable that it almost presents the case of feigning a stance.
The US has always offered North Korea incentives for closing down its nuclear activities, but the US has never delivered on its promises. This is why North Korea always resumes its nuclear activities. North Korea has attempted after testing a nuclear bomb in October 2006, to come to some agreement with the US over security and peace. This is as the North Korean people have been in virtual poverty due to the whole economy being geared towards war which has resulted in no consumer industry or general economic development. Hence the testing of nuclear devices was in order to warm the waters for a mutual agreement with the US. The US has not negotiated with North Korea which is prolonging the issue. The continued sluggish progress and prolonging fits perfectly for the presence of nearly 100 000 US troops in the region and with North Korea testing its nuclear arsenal in October 2006 this will expend Chinese efforts and gives a suitable justification for sustained and substantial US presence in South Korea.
J Rielly outlined this in a policy paper ‘These U.S. troops are in the region not simply to fight the “terrorist groups” causing local instability, but to enhance U.S. military control over territory in the South China Sea. This strategic area with vast potential oil reserves sits aside the shipping lanes to the Middle East and offers access to much of Southeast Asia. The expanded U.S. presence and nascent military alliances with Southeast Asian nations exacerbates Chinese anxieties and impedes independent accords among Asian states through such mechanisms as the ASEAN Regional Forum.’
China shares an open border with the Korean peninsula, therefore any escalation of hostilities brings the US military even closer to China’s borders.
What is the likely outcome of this crisis and the future for the region?
The US has conducted a summer of military exercises in the region confirming its support for the security of the nations that surround China. The US has used this crisis to send its USS George Washington aircraft carrier strike group to participate in South Korea’s Hoguk military exercises. It is unlikely South Korea will retaliate – they never have, with the US in the region the US could launch strikes against North Korea’s nuclear sites?
However this is very unlikely as China would see this as a major threat to its territorial integrity and retaliate. The US never resorted to such measures when North Korea did not have either a nuclear warhead or ballistic missile and was aware that Pyongyang was heading in this direction. The US has always used incentives to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.
What is the reality of North Korea domestically and its leadership?
North Korea since the end of WW2 was ruled by the current ruler, Kim Jong-il’s father Kim Il-sung – the founder of North Korea and the country’s only president. He was replaced by his son as heir, who himself is in the process of transferring power to his son. North Korea initially followed the Juche philosophy of self – reliance, however with the collapse of the Soviet Union this was replaced with a military first doctrine.
Kim Jong Il used the doctrine to consolidate his own political position and mobilize the country against threats both external and internal. There are practically no civilians in North Korea: there are only future soldiers, current soldiers, veterans, and families of soldiers. The military is the only truly functioning institution in the society, not only in terms of protecting borders and preparing for the much-touted foreign attack, but also in maintaining infrastructure and keeping the extraction industries running.
By putting the military first, the North Korean leadership is responding to a perceived foreign threat from the outside and strengthening the regime’s hold on power. But it is also appealing to the country’s most representative institution. In this sense, the military-first doctrine is a populist platform. Pyongyang’s nuclear tests can be interpreted as an attempt to stimulate nationalist pride and provide some measure of compensation for the economic adversity of the past decade.
 New York Times, 29th February 2004