Escalation Of Tensions In Korean Peninsula And China’s Role


By Rajaram Panda

The Joint Investigation Group comprising experts from 10 South Korean agencies and members from Australia, Britain, Sweden and the United States concluded in its May 24 report that the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan “was sunk as a result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea fired by a small North Korean submarine.” 46 South Korean sailors lost their lives in this incident. An angry South Korea has vowed to punish North Korea. In a swift reaction, North Korea hit back hard warning of an “all out war”.

The tension in the Korean peninsula has never before heightened to this extent since the Korean War ended in 1953, though North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and May 2009 generated much concern in the South. This time, prominent conservatives in South Korea want to strike back at the North. If South Korea were to launch a retaliatory strike, it would hold serious dangers of escalation. North Korea has resolved to complete the unfinished job of unification by military means. Engagement appears remote with both Koreas set on a confrontation mode.

The report of Joint Investigation Group fixing responsibility on North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan has been widely accepted by the international community and condemnation has poured in from many parts of the world. South Korea has launched a psychological warfare campaign and is mobilizing international support for imposing United Nations Security Council sanctions against the North. An infuriated North Korea has threatened to retaliate with “a sacred war involving the whole nation,” using “indiscriminate punishment of our style.” While this is not for the first time that Pyongyang has threatened to respond with war or even use nuclear weapons, the context this time around is different and seriousness of the situation is graver.

The attack on Cheonan is seen in Seoul as one of the worst provocations since the Korean War. In an address to the nation on 24 May 2010, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reminded the people of past North Korean role in perpetrating “incessant armed provocations” against South Korea, including “bombing attack against the presidential delegation at the Aung San Martyr’s Mausoleum in Myanmar and the bombing in midair of Korean Air Freight 858.” North Korea has never officially admitted to these crimes, and it is no different this time as well. Lee informed the people of his decision to take stern measures to hold the North accountable. South Korea halted trade with North Korea as part of a package of reprisals for the sinking of Cheonan. Lee also banned the North’s merchant ships from South Korean waters. Earlier, North Korean ships were allowed passage through any of the shipping lanes in the waters under South Korean control as per the provisions of the Inter-Korean Agreement on Maritime Transportation. He said: “The sea routes meant for inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation must never again be used for armed provocations.” Lee also told the people that South Korea will no longer tolerate any provocative act by the North though it will only maintain the principle of proactive deterrence. He informed the people that South Korea will exercise its “right of self-defence” if the country’s territorial waters, airspace or territory were to be violated. He added that South Korea’s overriding goal is “not military confrontation” and its vision is “to realize the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”` President Lee, however, exempted the jointly run Kaesong industrial estate just north of the border, and humanitarian aid for the North’s children, from the trade cut-off.

Reactions from the North to Lee’s speech were as expected. The North accused the South of faking evidence of its involvement in the Cheonan’s sinking as part of a plot to ignite conflict. It threatened “all-out war” in response to any punitive moves. North Korea’s National Defence Commission, the country’s top body chaired by Kim Jong-Il, described Lee as a “traitor” and termed his speech “another clumsy farce” designed to cover up the conspiracy.

Barack Obama backed Lee’s tough talk with strong words of his own, and termed South Korea’s sanctions against North as “entirely appropriate”. Endorsing Lee’s demand for an apology from North Korea, Obama ordered the US military to work closely with South Korea “to ensure readiness and to deter future aggression.” The US still has about 28,000 troops in South Korea to provide military support. A statement issued by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted that South Korea can count on America’s support. And the US has called for an “international response” to the sinking, without however specifying what form such a response might take. The US and South Korea are also planning a joint military exercise to be held in the “near future” and which will feature anti-submarine manoeuvres. They are also planning to work together to improve their ability to interdict cargo ships carrying arms or other prohibited materials to or from North Korea.

Japan supported Seoul’s push for UN Security Council measures and is examining more sanctions of its own against Pyongyang. Australia too has condemned the attack. India appreciated the manner in which South Korea handled the issue with restraint and maturity, when Seoul shared the investigation report with it.

China’s Critical Role

The one country that has not condemned the Cheonan sinking is China, which has instead called on all sides to show restraint. During his visit to Seoul on 27 May, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao discussed with President Lee the Cheonan sinking issue and indicated that China would side with South Korea on this issue. Wen assured Lee that China “opposes and censures any kind of act destroying peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” It was a rare exercise in Chinese diplomacy when Wen said that China would “determine its position in an objective and fair way” regarding the “international investigation” report. Lee, in turn, strongly urged Wen that “China needs to play an active role in making North Korea admit its wrongdoing” but Wen only promised “not (to) patronize anyone.” Even though Hatoyama joined Lee and Wen in a three-way summit in Seoul, China’s strategy has been to check an escalation of tension.

China has its own strategic and economic compulsions in backing North Korea and is thus unlikely to support any sanctions by the United National Security Council against Pyongyang. At the same time, neither is China likely to block sanctions with a veto. Instead, it might simply abstain. China’s priority is to maintain stability because a collapse of the North could result in a flood of refugees into China, which would pose severe challenges to its own internal security. In addition, China is also interested in strategic and commercial opportunities in North Korea, especially raw materials, a cheaper work force and access to one of Asia’s northernmost ice-free port on the Sea of Japan. All these suggest that China will be nobody’s friend and will pursue its own agenda in the way it deems appropriate to its national interests.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( at

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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