Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Ron Smith: Not so Cold War on the Korean Peninsula
That the regular forces of a sovereign state should engage in such an unprovoked attack on another is quite astonishing, notwithstanding the fact that North Korea and South Korea are still, technically, at war, the 1953 agreement having only been an armistice. By this token, it might be noted that we (New Zealand) are also still at war. These ‘technicalities’ aside, the incident does raise important questions for all sides and for international observers.
To begin with, we might ask why the North Koreans did it and what they might hope to gain. Clearly, they do not hope to re-open general conflict on the Korean peninsula, with a view to unifying the two Koreas under communist rule, which was their object in 1950. Prospects for that would be vanishingly small, notwithstanding the enormous proportion of the national budget the North spends on armaments. More plausibly, this action (and similar actions that have preceded it) have much more to do with a power struggle within the leadership regime of North Korea.
As has been known for some time, North Korean leader, Kim Jung-il, is suffering serious health problems and may not have very much longer to live. The question, then, is of the succession and, particularly, whether Kim Jung-il will be succeeded by a ‘hard-line’ clique formed around his son, Kim Jong-un, or by a potentially reformist group, who might wish to open up the regime at least to the extent of placing more emphasis on improving the wretched existence of the North Korean people. In this context, the incident of 26 March (and the long sequence of similar events that have preceded it), should be seen as designed to maintain the notion of external threat, in order to justify the continuation of the hard-line Kim regime.
This strategy clearly depends on the South Korean government responding in such a way as to reinforce the desired perception. The fact that it took a month to carefully confirm the facts, before announcing what had happened, suggests that this is well-understood and that, notwithstanding the entirely justifiable public outrage, the South Korean response will be measured. In truth, there is little else they can do. North Korea has very substantial conventional military forces, including armour and artillery, along the cease-fire line, so that whatever the ultimate outcome of generalised conflict, the assured effect would be enormous damage to South Korean infrastructure and the very successful South Korean economy.
It should be noted that none of this threat depends on the supposed North Korean nuclear weapon capability. Such deliverable capability as they possess at present (which may be nothing at all) would be insignificant in the context of a general conflict. The North Korean nuclear threat turns more on what they might have in the future and, particularly (like Iran,) on the possibility that they might supply fissile material to other parties, especially terrorists.
The key player in all this, of course, is China. It may be irritated by the continuing antics of the Kim regime, and the continuing necessity to provide aid, but it may also be at least ambivalent about whether it wants the regime to fall. The possibility of a government that might open-up to the world and ultimately lead to the political reunification of the Korean peninsula might not be entirely congenial, since it might bring the ‘world’ and the Americans to the Yalu River. Whatever the reason, China continues to support the present North Korean regime and as long as that situation persists, the provocations will persist. South Korea and the West will need to continue to play the long-game.
at 8:39 AM