Korea Wrap

by Matthew Shaffer

For those of you who spent Thanksgiving with family, and the weekend in a tryptophan coma, here’s a quick summary of the essential facts in the recent Korean altercations.

On Tuesday, the 23rd, over the course of one and a half hours, North Korean forces fired around 200 artillery shells on Yeonpyeong, a South Korean Island in the Yellow Sea. By the most recent accounts, they killed four South Koreans — two military, two civilian — and injured 18.

The complexities surrounding this issue go back to the Korean War. At the 1953 armistice, U.S.-led United Nations forces — successful in creating a well-defined demilitarized zone along the nations’ land border — had more trouble dividing the neighboring waters and islands of the Yellow Sea. Yeonpyeong Island and the surrounding waters were allocated to South Korea. North Korea never really accepted this decision: the island is just seven miles away from the North Korean mainland, and about 50 miles away from the nearest major South Korean port, Incheon. Today, Yeonpyeong Island hosts several South Korean military facilities, buildings, vehicles, equipment, and about 1700 civilians. It’s a sore spot for North Korea — and each side contests the rights the other claims in the area. Also importantly, in 1953 the U.S. signed a mutual-defense treaty with South Korea, obliging us to “act to meet the common danger,” presented by North Korea.

There’s no consensus as to why, exactly, North Korean forces launched the attack: it is attributed to generic tensions in the area, and generic North Korean aggression. Not surprisingly, North Korea, along with many sympathetic Chinese, blames Seoul, claiming that its continued military exercises and military presence near the island, just seven miles from the North Korean mainland, constitute a deliberate provocation.

South Korean Pres. Lee Myung-bak has promised an aggressive military response if North Korea attacks again. But he promised the same in March after a North Korean attack on a South Korean naval vessel killed 46 sailors.

U.S. politicians — from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Rep. Pete Hoekstra — meanwhile, have had stern words for Pyongyang, and made expressions of deep solidarity with Seoul. A U.S. aircraft carrier group was sent to Korean waters for joint exercises with South Korea. This morning, Seoul had announced intentions to engage in live-fire drills near Yeonpyeong Island, but then backed off within four hours. Instead, the U.S. and South Korea are currently engaged in high-profile joint exercises at a less provocative distance from the North Korean mainland.

North Korea’s aggression — coupled, especially, with the recent revelation of North Korea’s advanced nuclear-enrichment facilities — is certainly alarming. But the expert consensus is that there never was much of a chance that this would escalate into a full-scale military conflict between North and South Korea, or in the military entanglement of either’s allies. This was symbolic posturing. It’s significant, to be sure. But each side has very strong reasons to avoid full-scale war.

Events continue to unfold. The foreign ministers of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are now planning to meet in Washington on December 6th, to discuss the altercation. Nikkei quotes “source close to the matter” as saying that the three hope to persuade China to use its suasion to restrain its North Korean allies.