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Crossing the limit

Print edition : Dec 31, 2010 T+T-

East Asia: The recent flare-up is seen as a game-changer in the decades-long tensions between South Korea and North Korea.

in Singapore

WHEN does an inter-Korean military crisis cross the political limit line of incendiary brinkmanship? The answer was in the making as South Korea began major military drills on its own steam on December 6.

Just five days earlier, the prosperous southern' country, known by the official name of Republic of Korea (ROK), had concluded a massive naval exercise in association with the United States as the pre-eminent partner. The stated objective was to send a strong message to ROK's northern ethnic neighbour, the nuclear-armed Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), that its military provocations would not pay political dividend.

The phraseology of limit line, figuring in the political poser about brinkmanship on the Korean peninsula, is evocative of the central point in the new episode of inter-Korean confrontation that flared up in late November. At stake now, North Korea said, was nothing less than the status of the disputed Northern Limit Line (NLL), an informal maritime boundary between the two Koreas. The NLL came into being as a result of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice agreement as different from a peace treaty.

By all accounts, including those from the capital Pyongyang, North Korea fired the first shot in this new episode in late November. At least two South Korean military men and two civilians died in North Korea's artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, a known flashpoint along the troubled territorial waters of the two Koreas. South Korea returned fire. Informed sources said satellite images later revealed that some of the South Korean shells hit a North Korean garrison or camp site, while other shots went in the different directions of a field and blue waters. However, there was no confirmation of casualties, if any, on the North Korean side. At least two sequential exchanges of fire, each lasting a considerable number of minutes, took place on that day.

According to North Korea, it was simply responding to a series of military provocations South Korea was resorting to during its routine naval exercises in recent times. However, the flare-up has come to be seen in East Asian circles as a more recent game-changer in the decades-long inter-Korean tensions. It was for the first time that South Korea's unarmed civilians, with no known or suspected links to its democratic politics and military preparedness, fell prey to North Korea's firepower along the inter-Korean frontlines on the peninsula itself. Such an elaborate use of qualifying adjectives is needed for the simple reason that North Korea's suspected involvement in some earlier attacks on South Korean civilians is often cited in the diplomatic discourse in East Asia.

Some of those episodes were the killing of South Korean Cabinet Ministers in Burma (now Myanmar) and the shooting down of a South Korean airliner, both of which are blamed on or traced to North Korea's outreach. In the case of the killing of Cabinet Ministers, the then South Korean President was said to have escaped because he arrived late on the scene where the carnage took place.

Northern Limit Line

As for the latest inter-Korean crisis, which showed signs of spiralling as this was written, South Korea and its military ally, the U.S., continue to insist that North Korea had in the first place agreed to, or acquiesced in, the drawing of the NLL in the Yellow Sea. The waterway lies between China's continental landmass and the western flanks of the two Koreas. The North Korean version is obviously different: the inter-Korean maritime boundary is an unsettled demarcation.

Moreover, long before the latest flare-up on the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang had proposed a redrawing of the NLL to reflect the objective military realities. In North Korea's line of thinking, those realities were somehow overlooked at the time the armistice accord was drawn up more than half a century ago. The counterpoint from the South Korean side is that North Korea did not possess much of a navy to talk about when the NLL was agreed upon. This had left North Korea with little choice but to accept the line as preferred by the U.S. and South Korea at that time.

A finer point now made by South Korean sources is that the ownership of the Yeonpyeong Island, shelled by North Korea in late November, has never been in dispute. While proposing the redrawing of the NLL, North Korea did not lay claim to Yeonpyeong and the adjacent islands in the Yellow Sea, it is said. While it is difficult to ascertain the reticent North Korea's bottom-line position on this tricky issue, the fact remains that the inter-Korean maritime boundary is once again in prime focus.

South Korea's solo exercise

In a sense, the new tensions, sparked by the late-November incident and the events that followed, did not signify the lowest ebb in inter-Korean ties, at least as the commencement of South Korea's solo military drills on December 6. The live-fire show of force was designed to last nearly a week and signal the political message that South Korea, on its own steam, could match or outwit North Korea in the conventional military domain. Unsurprisingly, North Korea was quick to denounce South Korea's solo exercise as a warmongering provocation.

Palpable were the sighs of relief among diplomats across East Asia over the earlier incident-free completion of a sophisticated U.S.-ROK naval exercise carried out in the general vicinity of the NLL. Understandably, therefore, the very same diplomats began keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that South Korea's do-it-alone military exercise, while gaining momentum, would not prove North Korea right by triggering a war. The argument here is not that Seoul was testing Pyongyang's patience for remaining calm during the entire period of this exercise and beyond. Rather, a general apprehension among East Asian diplomats and experts, as at the beginning of this exercise, was that South Korea's self-defensive show of force might still be seen by North Korea differently, given especially its military first state policy.

Political pressure

Why then did South Korea opt for its stand-alone military drills after having just completed a major naval exercise in association with the U.S.? Indeed, one of America's nuclear-powered aircraft carriers formed the core base for operations during the joint exercise. The general assessment was that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was now coming under increasing political pressure at home to put across a point or two towards North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The key point in this line of argument was that Lee's critics were beginning to feel that his political demeanour in dealing with North Korea had produced no deterrent effect on Kim. In focus in this sub-context was Lee's statesman-like position after a South Korean warship was sunk in a perceived torpedo attack by North Korea earlier in 2010. On that occasion, Lee's first reaction was to take measured steps to internationalise the issue instead of trying to flex South Korea's military muscle alone or in association with the U.S.

The subtle point here was not that Lee did not, in the end, resort to a show of force, in some measure, to send a political message across to North Korea. However, the difference between late November and early December was that South Korean civilians were now killed, whereas only military personnel accounted for the far higher death toll in the warship disaster. To this extent, Lee now faced a qualitatively different climate of public opinion. The popular anger over the death of two civilian residents of Yeonpyeong Island was compounded by the street protest by some military personnel over the state of South Korea's preparedness to face North Korea in the immediate wake of the late-November incident.

Without going into such dynamics of domestic politics, South Korean Ambassador to Singapore Oh Joon spelt out some of the issues at stake in early December.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Frontline, he said: Self-defence was proportionate to the attack we received [at Yeonpyeong Island in late November]. But from now on, it is not going to be a proportionate [response], it can be punitive. President [Lee] has come up with a plan to beef up our military presence in that area. At one point, we withdrew our military presence [there], about 10 years ago. But now, we are going the other way round. We are also changing the rules of engagement, because we will have to stop the [North Korean] attacks on our civilians with whatever available force we have.

As for the contrast with Seoul's response to the warship incident earlier this year, the South Korean envoy said: We spent at least two months investigating. We didn't approach the issue with any presumption. We opened all the explanations, and we narrowed down and then we concluded that it was a North Korean torpedo. So, there was no window for us to retaliate [in the immediate wake of the ship-sinking].

About the overall balance of forces on the Korean peninsula, Oh Joon said: North Korea might have more soldiers, but the objective analysis is that South Korea's military power is stronger than North Korea's. It is state-of-the-art power. And, our population is more than two times larger than North Korea's. There is no U.S. nuclear weapon stationed in South Korea. But, both South Korea and Japan are under U.S. nuclear umbrella. That means: if we are attacked by a nuclear weapon [from North Korea], U.S. will use the same weapon [against the attacker]. On the way forward for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, the envoy said: One day in the future, of course, we might go back to talks with North Korea, either bilateral or multilateral. In the near future, the issue right in front of us is how to make North Korea not repeat its act of aggression. It's a difficult question.

On the brighter side of the ROK-DPRK equation, as seen from Seoul's perspective in early December, Oh Joon said: Both South Korea and the United States think that China can and also should play a greater role in reining in North Korea. There is no reason for China to be not constructive, because eventually all our goals are more or less on the same line. China wants to see a denuclearised North Korea. China wants to see peace and stability. China is our largest trading partner and China has very big economic stakes on the Korean peninsula as well. North Korea does not [of course] have the political will to denuclearise. That's the problem.

Leadership succession

Non-authoritative accounts of the motives behind North Korea's action against South Korea in late November are dime a dozen. Prominent among them is the theory about the fireworks of an ongoing leadership succession in the deeply militarised state.

Against this backdrop of speculation, contradictory signals about China's future attitude towards North Korea are in fact evident from the maze of U.S. diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks by early December. One cable shows up China as leaning towards accepting the possibility of Korean reunification on Seoul's terms, while another cable indicates that it does not want South Korea to gobble up North Korea.

Also in focus in some of these cables is the possible collective effort by the U.S., South Korea and Japan to bring about a change of course in North Korea. Interestingly, the U.S. is poised, at the time of writing, to begin what may be a long period of consultations with South Korea and Japan. However, the U.S., going forward, is equally mindful of the views and stakes of China and Russia as regards the Korean peninsula's future. On a different but related plane, independent enquiries by this correspondent indicate that Seoul has not received authoritative signals from Beijing that it might be willing to forget North Korea as a bad dream and let South Korea take over the entire peninsula.