Reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula?
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 22, 2010
The South Korean military recently announced a postponement of its Yeonpyeong Island live fire exercises. North Korea then announced that in order to defend its territorial waters from attack, its shelling was more intense and covered greater territory than in the past.
All of a sudden, the atmosphere had changed. Moscow and Beijing met with ambassadors from Seoul and Washington. They called for an emergency session of the Security Council. They urged all parties to exercise restraint, and to dispatch special envoys to intervene in peninsula affairs. Although the Security Council convened a two-day weekend meeting, it failed to reach a consensus.
At noon on the 20th, South Korea began 90 minutes of shelling. Nearly 2000 rounds were fired. North Korea's response was a surprise, The Supreme Commander of the North Korean People's Army issued a statement: "We consider it unnecessary to retaliate against such despicable military provocations." In other words, it was not merely postponing retaliation, it was refusing to respond at all.
The crisis has passed. The world has breathed a sigh of relief. The incident shows Washington and Seoul's tough stance. North Korea's response will have a long term impact on the future on the peninsula.
First of all, South Korea was the party that deliberately conducted military exercises. To characterize Seoul's action as a provocation would be an overstatement. But South Korea was unquestionably the one that acted first.
Routine artillery exercises have been held on Yeonpyeong Island for decades. But this was a sensitive time. South Korea insisted on holding them anyway, motivated by domestic politics.
South Korea suffered greater losses than North Korea during the Cheonan ship sinking incident and shelling incident. This provoked public anger and forced the government to replace its MInister of Defense. If the government failed to take a harder line, or to retaliate, the public would have lost all confidence. South Korea's ruling party noted pragmatically that "If we knuckle under, North Korea will hold Korea in contempt, and will force us to make further concessions." That is why President Lee Myung-bak said "In response to North Korean provocations, it is essential to make them pay a price. Only if we have the courage to hold our ground and refuse to make concessions, can we enjoy a lasting peace."
In response to the exercise, North Korea mobilized more warships, early warning aircraft, and surface to surface missiles. South Korea ordered F-15K fighters, equipped with JDAMs with a 278 km range, on standby alert. If North Korea shelled in retaliation, South Korea would not have hesitated. It would have immediately blown up the other side's artillery positions.
Furthermore, this time Washington was informed about the situation and supported Seoul's response. Washington must firmly support Seoul. Obama must not provoke another war of course. But if allows Pyongyang to succeed once again, the US will lose all credibility in the Asia-Pacific region. Never mind South Korea. Even Japan and Southeast Asia will no longer be able to trust US security assurances.
Two weeks ago, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen suddenly flew to the front-lines to conduct an inspection. Soon afterwards, Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright said that if North Korea engages in an aggressive response to an exercise conducted by South Korea, it could trigger a "chain reaction." The implication was the US military would not sit idly by. The US deployed over 20 officers on Yeonpyeong Island during the recent exercises. They provided communications, intelligence analysis, and medical facilities, But the real significance of their presence was political. They were there to act as "trip wires." If these soldiers became casualties, the US would be handed a pretext for intervention. The soldiers also served as human shields to contain North Korea.
Seoul and Washington have finally gotten what they wanted. Will this open a door to future peace on the Korean Peninsula? That will depend upon North Korea's response.
North Korea's reaction was a surprise. The world must now re-evaluate the rationality of the Kim dynasty, father and son. Of course, some think Pyongyang merely responded to intense pressure from the Washington/Seoul alliance, and finally saw the light. If a similar incident occurs in the future, some say, one must respond in an equally hard line manner. Tolerance and concessions have already been shown to be the wrong way.
But from another perspective, one might simply conclude that Pyongyang's military tactics have reached a point of diminishing returns. While the two sides harangued each other, former US Secretary of Energy and current New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was invited to North Korea. He was accompanied by reporters from the New York Times and CNN. Pyongyang was sending a message. It wanted direct talks with Washington.
According to reports, Richardson met with senior officials under Kim Jong-il. Last year, International Atomic Energy Agency personnel were expelled from the country. North Korea has agreed to allow them back in. It has also agreed to sell 12,000 fuel rods, reassuring the West that they will not be transferred to Iran. It has even agreed to set up a military hot line with the tripartite mission. Such concessions are substantial. They show that North Korea is undergoing transition. It is paving the way for future contacts and reconciliation.
North Korea was wrong to engage in provocation. But whether a such a strong response was necessary is debatable. Moscow and Beijing proposed an emergency sesson of the UN Security Council, not without reason. If North Korea retaliated violently, and war suddenly erupted, the entire world could be caught in the crossfire. Washington and Seoul engaged in a high stakes gamble. In order to have a war, both sides must be determined to fight. Fortunately, both North and South Korea knew they were ill-prepared to fight a war. North Korea is small. It has long relied on bluster to get what it wants. But do the US and South Korea, who are more powerful, really want to play the same game? This is a question worth considering.