Thursday, December 9, 2010
Ron Smith: Korea: the war that never left
But there is something very peculiar about Seoul, which marks it off from other capital cities around the world. For miles on either bank of the Han River, which flows through the city, there are rolls of razor-wire with guard posts every few hundred metres in which there are constantly vigilant armed soldiers. Not far north of the capital, there is more wire and more soldiers as you come to the so-called, ‘de-militarised zone’ (the DMZ), which stretches right across the Korean peninsula from coast to coast. Beyond this is the other Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic, DPRK), with a per capita GDP of $1,900, half of which is spent on arms, and much of the product of which is lined up along the frontier.
The south (the Republic of Korea) has a lot to lose from an escalation of conflict. The north much less so, which is why, since the 1953 ‘cease-fire’, they have got away with a long series of outrageous provocations, which have included the periodic sinking of South Korean ships (with heavy loss of life), the bombing and hijacking of aircraft (again, heavy loss of life), and numerous armed incursions into the south (or attempts, thereof). Amongst these ‘attempts’ is a series of major excavations from the north, designed to launch substantial forces, with their heavy equipment, beyond the frontier. I visited ‘Tunnel number three’ just a couple of months, ago (and there are more; perhaps, as many as seventeen!).
All this explains the barbed wire everywhere and is the background to the recent artillery bombardment from the North. Of course, the other background factor is the one I commented on in June: the matter of dynastic succession in North Korea (‘dynastic succession’ in a ‘people’s republic’ - there’s a concept!). As a justification for this most recent destruction and loss of human life (I am including the sinking of the Cheonan) this is simply risible. But it is the reality that the Republic of Korea (and its supporters) has to face.
The continuing North Korean nuclear weapons programme is another reality but, this time, one that confronts the entire world. This is particularly so now that it has been revealed that (contrary to previous undertakings) the People’s Republic has started uranium enrichment. The
DPRK already has a record of supplying nuclear materials and missiles to anyone prepared to pay. The addition of highly enriched uranium to their list of wares would be a most unwelcome development.
All of this raises the crucial question as to what is to be done? One thing is clear and that is, that interested parties (really all of us) cannot go on with the failed policies of the past, which have had the effect of rewarding and reinforcing bad behaviour over more than twenty years. Over this period, there has been a succession of meetings and agreements brought on by North Korean nuclear activity and continuing military provocations. In an earlier phase this resulted in the so-called ‘Framework Agreement’ of 1994 and the establishment of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO), to which New Zealand contributed financially, the headquarters of which I can recall visiting (in New York) in 1999. Under this, North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons programme and normalise its relations with the South, in return for aid and, particularly, assistance with energy development. This latter entailed the supply of oil and the construction (by South Korea) of civilian nuclear power reactors.
In the event, North Korea continued with its covert weapon programme and eventually tested a nuclear device. It also continued its attacks on the South. There was a naval altercation in 1999 and other, more minor incidents, until the torpedo attack and bombardment this year, together with the revelation about uranium enrichment. Through these years there have also been plenty of talks and overtures of conciliation from South Korea (the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’). This has included the construction of a brand new railway station, just south of the border, all ready to join the two Koreas and connect both with the world beyond.
Since the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island a couple of weeks ago, the South Korean Government has replaced its defence minister, with the clear implication that the response to this assault was inadequate. In truth, it is hard to see what more could have been done. A more forceful response (say, artillery fire on an inhabited area north of the border) might have provoked a further return of fire, with the possibility of further escalation beyond that. As noted earlier, for geographical and economic reasons, the South has much more to lose from wider conflict, certainly in the short run. On the other hand, it has nothing to gain from continuing to appease the regime north of its border. Neither South Korea, nor its friends should offer any aid to that regime from this point on, nor should they dignify it by entering into any talks. However, they do need to keep their guard up.
As I noted on the previous occasion, the key player here is China. The Chinese can continue to pretend not to see what North Korea is doing (as in the Cheonan sinking case), and prop them up with aid and support, including (as recent ‘Wikileaks’ seem to suggest) support for their nuclear export activities, or they can take seriously their responsibilities as a major world power and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and cut off all assistance until they behave. Until something along these lines occurs, there should be no further multiparty talks. It is quite simply up to China.
at 8:58 AM