It was clear, even before the smoke cleared over the tiny South Korean island bombed by North Korea on Tuesday afternoon, that this would be one of the most serious crises the peninsula has faced. Some 200 North Korean artillery shells killed two marines, and later the bodies of two civilians were found on Yeonpyeong Island. Dozens of locals and military personnel were injured, and villages burned.
South Korea retaliated, firing some 80 shells back across the border, and scrambling jets. The event reawoke the anger that followed the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel earlier this year, killing 46 sailors – almost certainly caused by a North Korean torpedo, although Pyongyang denied responsibility. And it also stoked the fears caused by the totalitarian state’s recent exhibition of its nuclear facilities to a small group of invited American experts, who reported that Pyongyang has some 2,000 impressively high-tech centrifuges capable of producing the fuel for nuclear power stations – and nuclear weapons.
Some see the seeds of new global tension in the conflict - the US, Japan and Europe have declared strong support for Seoul, and America embarked on military exercises off the coast of the peninsula. But both South Korea and the US have been careful to avoid immediate threats of retaliation which might escalate the conflict, the US has not repositioned its 29,000 troops in the South, and nor has it explicitly agreed to provide South Korea with nuclear protection.
Meanwhile China – a longstanding ally of North Korea – held back from any strong statements, with a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman yesterday urged both sides to "do more to contribute to peace and stability in the region". Although Beijing has distanced itself from the Pyongyang regime in recent decades – in the 1980s the two countries previously claimed to be “as close as lips and teeth” – it is concerned about instability in the North and the prospect of a unified Korea dominated by the US.
But while the superpowers pussyfoot around the crisis, discussion and doubt has centred on North Korea’s motivation for such a blatant act of provocation – and the question of what can possibly be done about it.
Simon Tisdale argues in the Guardian that “North Korea uses military power, or the threat of it, where others use diplomacy. It is the only real leverage the regime has.” It wants respect, an end to sanctions and diplomatic isolation and no more threats of regime change. The leaders want “food aid, electricity, financial assistance, investment, trade. Finally, the ailing dictator wants backing for the postulated dynastic succession of his youngest son, a scheme that could yet collapse amid acrimony or worse.” What are they offering in return? An end to their troublemaking. This may not be popular in the west, but in the end, Tisdale argues, a deal is “doable and desirable”.
Writing in the Times, Bronwen Maddox argues that “preparations for the succession to Kim Jong Il, the Supreme Leader, are the root cause of rising tension. Kim Jong Un, his son and presumed successor, needs the support of the army – hence, many think, the upsurge in military provocation this year.” She also argues that the regime has been destabilised by the recent increased availability of international television to North Korean viewers, which lets them see that “another life could be – and should be – theirs.” On her reading, then, the attacks are a show of strength intended for North Koreans as well as the enemies on the peninsula.
In the Financial Times, Robert Kaplan also interpreted North Korea’s behaviour as an internal issue, a way of shoring up the splintered leadership. As he wrote, “the heightened aggression shown by North Korea therefore may be a sign that the regime is in deep trouble. A sudden implosion could unleash the mother of all humanitarian problems, with massive refugee flows toward the Chinese border and a semi-starving population of 23m becoming the ward of the international community – in effect the ward of the US, Chinese and South Korean armies. Yet while regime change in the North is welcome in the abstract, we should remember that the only thing that might be worse than a totalitarian government is no government at all: a lesson we all should have learnt from Iraq.”
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