After the artillery fire, time to engage North Korea

There was renewed concern on the Korean peninsula and beyond yesterday, as details emerged of extensive artillery fire by North Korean military forces on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, a military base. Two South Korean soldiers were killed in the attacks, and around 20 more injured.

Much remains unclear, but it has been reported that the South returned fire. Though naval skirmishes between the two sides have occurred with increasing frequency in recent years, this constitutes the first ground-to-ground assault between the two sides since 1953.

Joint Security Area, Demilitarized Zone, Korea. Photo by Kok Leng Yeo on Creative Commons licence.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak warned that any further provocation would result in ‘enormous retaliation’. Once again, Northeast Asia seems on the brink of a potentially catastrophic military escalation. Domestic social and political forces in the North and the South will largely determine what happens next, but the reaction of Washington will be critical to the long-term stability of the region.

It is time to engage Pyongyang bilaterally, as a means of kick-starting the Six Party Talks. Such a forum is in the interests of every major stakeholder in the region.   

Yeonpyeong Island sits close to the disputed maritime border demarcating North and South territory in the West Sea. The ‘Northern Limit Line’ was set unilaterally by US-led UN forces following the Korean War, but has never been fully accepted by the North, and disputes over territorial and fishing rights are not uncommon.

The sinking in March of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, was just the latest in a series of naval clashes in the area, though the North continues to deny involvement, and deems the South’s subsequent implementation of comprehensive sanctions as a disproportionate and unjustified response.

Cheonan. Photo: Defense Statecraft blog.

Yesterday’s flashpoint would appear to suggest that, despite burgeoning trade with China, the breakdown in the relationship with South Korea – previously the North’s biggest trade partner – is hurting the North Korean economy during what is an extremely fragile period of political transition.

Factions and conflicts of interest between the military, the cabinet and the Korean Workers Party over how to approach the challenges of economic development, reunification, and relations with the international community in the post-Kim Jong-il era are increasingly evident. Most analysts interpreted the sinking of the Cheonan as retaliation for an incident in November 2009 in which 11 North Korean sailors died, and as a feather in the cap for heir-in-waiting Kim Jong-eun, a clear demonstration to the military of his credentials.

Yesterday’s attack may also be attributed internally to the Dear Leader’s son, but the primary purpose is to secure a return to dialogue, first with Washington, and then in the six party format. Pyongyang has long been calling for a return to the Six Party Talks, which it abandoned in April 2009, and to prod Washington it last week disclosed to American scientist Siegfried Hecker a ‘modern, industrial scale’ uranium enrichment facility at the North’s Yongbyon nuclear complex. (Though Hecker was adamant that the facilities produce low-enriched uranium and ‘appear to be designed primarily for civilian nuclear power, not to boost North Korea’s military capability’, the revelation provoked a maelstrom of hysterical media reporting about a new nuclear crisis.)

The Obama administration continues to insist that the North take irreversible and verifiable steps towards denuclearization before talks can begin, aware that without this a return to negotiations will be portrayed at home as a capitulation to North Korean demands.

However, the North’s disclosure of its ‘astonishingly modern’ uranium enrichment facility is intended to remind the US that the logic of squeezing a regime with a ‘military-first’ doctrine, and hoping it eventually gives in, is fatally flawed. It is social spending that suffers in the face of sanctions and isolation, not military spending.

Of course, it will be argued in Washington that the North cannot be trusted, evidenced by its reneging on the terms of the Agreed Framework in 2003, and the Six Party Talks in 2009. But despite the insistence of North Korean and US diplomats, in both cases promises were broken on both sides. Trust cannot be re-established on either side without an ongoing and wide-ranging dialogue, not only regarding the nuclear programme, but on issues such as human rights, the North’s missile programmes (not discussed formally since 2000) and economic development.

Political art - postcard from North Korea. Photo by John Pavelka on Creative Commons licence.

It seems likely that, as was the case earlier this year, the response of the United States and its allies to the events of the past few days will be one of defiance, exhibiting first military strength, and then enforcing further punitive sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

We have been here before, but lessons about North Korean behaviour are not easily learned in Washington. Until the Obama administration recognizes that it is folly to neglect Pyongyang and wait for it to return to the Six Party Talks on the stringent pre-conditions set by the US, the same cycle of North Korean belligerence and US-South Korean punishment will continue; this strengthens support in Pyongyang for military-first policies, whilst pushing the North to rely increasingly on proliferation activities and enhance its bargaining position at future negotiations.

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