By Preeti Nalwa
Each time an act of belligerence is tactically executed by North Korea, admittedly more muscular rules of engagement are envisaged and staged by South Korea and its ally the United States in unison, to deter Pyongyang from carrying out future provocative actions, with implications of conflict escalation on the Korean peninsula and engulfing the entire region of Northeast Asia into an unintended war. Each time, North Korea manages to accomplish its aim in striking in such a fashion that touches the nerve of South Korean vulnerabilities while it bolsters its own image domestically. In view of the limited options available to South Korea and the United States, North Korea continues to politically and militarily strengthen its regime. Pyongyang astutely exploits its asymmetrical advantage for it accurately comprehends its adversary’s anxiety to keep war in check. Therefore, the North Korean provocation is downplayed, condemned and described as an isolated incident. But the North Korean aggressive behaviour never fails to critically question the adequacy of South Korea’s defence strategies, for each time it requires Seoul to not only undertake colossal upgrading of its military preparedness but also keeps on increasing its defence dependence on the United States. Such a chain of events has assumed the semblance of an ossified pattern.
The North Korean artillery attack on the Yeonpyeong island under South Korean control on November 23, 2010, which provoked the latest artillery exchanges between the two, is the latest addition to this chain. The attack comprised of more than 100 artillery shells most of which landed on a military base prompting South Korea to return fire with about 80 shells from its howitzers at a North Korean garrison. Two marines and two civilians were killed on Yeonpyeong, and eighteen others, mostly marines, were injured. Fire gutted dozens of homes and buildings and plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the island, which lies near the disputed maritime border separating North and South Korea and just 12 kilometres from the North Korean coast. The artillery exchange forced the island’s 1,700 residents to flee and seek protection in bunkers. This is North Korea’s most audacious assault since the bombing of the South Korean airliner in 1987 that killed 115 civilians.
North Korea claims that the artillery fire on the island was in response to the annual live ammunition military drills called ‘Safeguarding the Nation’ conducted by South Korea, and it has accused South Korea for “recklessly” firing into its sea area. North Korea has also warned that it will “wage second and even third rounds of attacks without any hesitation” in the event of further provocations or if its territory is violated. The United States and South Korea are undertaking a major four-day naval exercise west of the Korean peninsula beginning November 28, 2010, which will bring the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, the symbol of America’s unrivalled military superiority, into strategically sensitive waters between China and the Korean peninsula. North Korea has denounced the drills as a provocation and has cautioned that they are pushing the peninsula to the “the brink of war”. It is reported that North Korea which had earlier moved surface-to-air missiles to frontline areas has subsequently placed surface-to-surface missiles on launch pads in the Yellow Sea.
The South Korean government has once again found itself in a state of crisis and emergency with its fighter jets placed on high alert. Its Defence Minister Kim Tae-young has been forced to resign following fierce criticism in parliament over the insipid response of the nation to the attack on the island. The South Korean government proposes to completely revise the existing rules of engagement, which are seen as being rather “passive”. More artillery shell fire was heard emanating from North Korea just two days after the attack though no projectiles landed on South Korean territory. However, tensions still remain high as the US commander of the ROK-US Joint Forces Command, General Walter Sharp, visited the island to survey the damage. The United States wants China to exercise its influence on North Korea but the fact that both China and North Korea share the unease imparted by the US military presence and activities in their waters would inhibit China from putting pressure on its ally on which its leverage of any significant value is doubtful anyway. Moreover, the embedded conflicting quest of China and the United States for influence on the strategically located Korean peninsula would preclude a resolution of the Korean conflict on terms laid down by the United States which are likely to prove detrimental to China’s interests. China’s envoy to North Korea, Wu Dawei, is advocating an emergency meeting of the heads of the Six-Party Talks (SPT) in early December in Beijing “to exchange views on major issues of concern to the parties at present.”
The crisis has emerged amid the alarm created by the revelation of a uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges and a 25 to 30 megawatt-electric (MWe) experimental light-water reactor (LWR) to Siegfried Hecker, Co-Director of the Centre for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, by the North Korean authorities on November 12, 2010. There is enough evidence to show that North Korea is not cracking up as expected by the United States and that the survival of its regime is protected by its military aptitude bestowed by the improvements it is making in its nuclear capabilities. Three incidents indicate this. First, the ‘strategic snub’ given to former US President Jimmy Carter by Kim Jong Il when he decided to leave for China rather than welcome Carter who came on a “private humanitarian trip” to Pyongyang on August 25, 2010 for securing the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an American activist, sentenced to eight years’ hard labour for illegally entering the country. Second, the resolve shown by Kim Jong Il for effecting the smooth succession of leadership to his youngest son Kim Jong-un who was made a Daejang, a four-star general and appointed to the second-highest military post of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea on September 27, 2010. At the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party held on October 10, 2010 North Korea invited international journalists to witness the impressive military parade as a mark of its military ability. Third, the initiative taken by North Korea itself to unveil its advancement in nuclear technology to Siegfried Hecker and Charles Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute (KEI) and a former State Department special envoy for North Korea. These incidents also suggest that North Korea is not buckling under the sanctions synchronized by the United States.
In a Special Report, Siegfried Hecker states that “Tightening sanctions further is likewise a dead end, particularly given the advances made in their nuclear program and the economic improvements we saw in general in Pyongyang. The only hope appears to be engagement.” However, despite the inclination of North Korea and China to revert to multilateral talks, the United States has categorically refused the convening of the SPT unless North Korea adheres to the requisites of denuclearization that it has put down. As North Korea secures itself, it relays the message to the United States that its security concerns cannot be taken for granted. As things stand, it would not only keep its nuclear deterrent but would also rely on its indigenous resources to produce nuclear electricity. It is quite apparent that the United States has failed to reshape the North’s preferences, but the critical question is whether North Korea should be allowed to shape the security environment in Northeast Asia. Because of America’s refusal to engage North Korea, by default the reclusive nation dictates the rules of engagement in its favour. It will await a moment of weakness and pounce yet again to strike where it hurts. The same pattern of events will be repeated and it seems that the United States has gotten to prefer this damaging indulgence at the cost of perceptions of security in the region. Despite the failure of the archaic transactional proposition and the ‘strategic patience’ posture, the United States continues to delay a transformational approach – the key to rein in North Korea.
Preeti Nalwa is pursuing a PhD at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/Korean%20Crisis_PreetiNalwa_291110