Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Straight Il'n

So in case you have not noticed, things are getting real on the Korean peninsula. There has been military and rhetorical escalation accompanied by suspension of official and economic relations between North and South Korea, which is disconcerting. Anyways, I have been reading around and trying to make sense of the situation. I think it would be easy for me to say who knows, and that may be a conclusion I come to anyway, but I figure I should at least write something out to brainstorm how this will play-out for Northeast Asia and the U.S.

An interesting development so far has been the call by other nations, namely South Korea, Japan and the United States, for China to respond to the actions of North Korea[1]. It is fairly common for 6-party nations to point to China as the North Korea deal breaker. Therefore, it is not surprising the call is being made, but it will be interesting to see how China responds. If China swings to North Korea and gets out of step with the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, it could signal a chilling of relations between all countries involved. I will try to give a rundown of the event itself, reactions by relevant parties, and the impact of their reactions.

The sinking of the 天安/Cheonan

On March 26th the South Korean patrol boat Cheonan (the characters in the title was taken from a Japanese news source, if the Korean to Japanese is correct then the ships name would be translated into English as ‘Heavenly Peace’ or something in that regard[2]) was sunk around the North/South Korean maritime border[3]. After investigation and deliberation by South Korea (and an international team of inspectors) it was only recently determined to be an external explosion caused by a North Korean torpedo[4]. There have been 46 reported casualties in the sinking of the Cheonan. North Korea has denied any involvement but evidence is fairly convincing otherwise.

Back in late March/early April when I first heard of this, I was not particularly fazed or alarmed because incidents of this nature are not an uncommon occurrence. A history of similar clashes between North and South Korea is detailed in a Christian Science Monitor article here: . North Korea also has a history of nefarious behavior with other neighbor countries like Japan. Point being North Korea is no stranger to acting provocatively, but the reactions coming from usual suspect countries has been quite stern.     


The reaction by South Korea running up to the findings of the recent investigation has been commendably measured. South Korea was quick to, well, be prudent. After multilateral consensus about the causes of the attack South Korea has bolstered its military vigilance and spending, stopping trade and commerce between the two, and an increase of radio/loudspeaker propaganda traffic over the DMZ border. [5]

North Korea has responded to South Korean threats by ending formal relations with South Korea and exiting the non-aggression pact[6]. The fate of the Kaesong economic zone is also up in the air, changing as I write this[7].

The response by the Japanese government is sternly behind South Korea. Japan has begun discussion on ramping up sanctions[8], suspending financial activity between Japan and North Korea, increasing the vigilance of the JSDF (Japanese Self-Defense Force)[9], and calling for action at the UN.

The United States has so far condemned North Korea and asked China to act responsibly to the situation (more specifically US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while touring Asian countries). The United States and Japan have also begun talks in regards to the future of North Korea on regional security[10].

China has called for nations involved to act calmly and act only to maintain peaceful relations on the peninsula[11].

Fallout and Impacts

I doubt conflict will be the ultimate conclusion of the recent turn of events. It is simply in no one’s interest for conflict to occur. There remains interesting implications for how neighboring countries in East Asia and the United States view each other afterwards.

If China continues to play soft with North Korea it will not add legitimacy in the eyes of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. It is constantly harped on in news sources and from experts that North Korean stability is important to China because of their concern of a possible flood of refugees from North Korea. This is often indicative of China’s motivation for how they handle escapees of North Korea currently. While stability is important for more than just China, the status quo of stability is not favorable to the long term security of northeast Asia. In kind, China’s refusal to provide impetus for reform in North Korea is viewed by the 6-party nations as irresponsible. If China acts in a way unfavorable to South Korea, Japan, and the United States it will only support the idea that although China’s economic and military power has increased dramatically its ability to act as a responsible political entity in the Asian community is questionable. Alternatives fall onto the Japan-US alliance in the Pacific and in general leads to a greater faith in these countries from South Korea. The call for China to be responsible comes not only from the US, but also South Korea as seen in a Chosun Ilbo editorial[12].

The impact for South Korea is so far quite negative. The uncertainty about the escalation has affected the South Korean stock market adversely and the reunification/peace process has undoubtedly been set back. Naturally if war ends up erupting it is not good for either country, North Korea more than anyone, but South Korea could also be in grave danger (think massive amounts of artillery that is pointed at Seoul). It should be mentioned that elections are looming in South Korea and it will be interesting to see how President Lee Myung-Bak will be affected.

I will group Japan and the United States together because there are some impacts that are unique to these two countries. It appears this event will bolster the U.S.-Japan security relationship because the event shows a material reason for having U.S. presence in Japan when the Futenma issue is still very much alive. Also the U.S. and Japanese response in juxtaposition to China’s extended shrugging-of-shoulders makes the U.S. and Japan more viable partners in the eyes of South Korea in the future. I would not expect this impact to be close to a major shift, China is here to stay, but it does not reflect well when you do not take a harder line against South Korea’s now “number one enemy”[13]. Both the U.S. and Japanese military are going to be on guard, but naturally this will affect the U.S. more than Japan.

It is difficult to gauge what is going on and what will happen in North Korea, especially in the upcoming days. There are some things to think about though. The past year has been an interesting one with North Korea, namely in regards to the poor monetary choices by the North Korean government which made North Koreans wealth even more worthless. Succession is also a fast-approaching possibility. If war actually broke out and China cut North Korea loose it could be the beginning of the end and East Asia would have to brace for a collapse in North Korea. 

Something Like A Conclusion

My main conclusion is this issue is probably more important for how it reflects on relations between East Asian countries rather than an actual military conflict occurring, at least hopefully so. More specifically it could easily be another case of China refusing to act in a responsible manner. While China is correct in hoping for peace to be maintained, the status quo it supports is not very conducive to stopping brinkmanship or long-term stability. In general China’s position to North Korea is based on economic engagement and procuring natural resources. In and of itself this is not a bad thing because of the leverage it provides China. Personally, this aspect of China’s North Korea policy is important to look at when we think of the effectiveness of sanctions. If China does not engage in sanctions then sanctions become counter-productive, but also it highlights why sanctions are not a particularly effective strategy. Imagine if the U.S. had a similar relationship with North Korea and actually used said leverage responsibly. That is an issue of too little too late, so we can only ask China to do what China should do if its legitimate neighbors should trust China.  

Note on sources: I tried to use a variety of sources when looking at this issue and I am sure there are many good ones I missed. I have referenced the Christian Science Monitor, CNN, Reuters, Koreas’ JoonAng Daily and Chosun Ilbo, China’s Xinhua news service and Japan’s Yomiuri. 

Most misleading article title I found while doing this entry: "Okada's Japan thrown into chaos by Korea". I thought the reference was to the Foreign Minister Okada...nope it was the soccer coach of the Japanese national soccer team that was defeated by South Korea 2-0... 


No comments:

Post a Comment