By John Swenson-Wright

In the wake of the sinking of the Cheonan - South Korea's corvette in March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives - and the dramatic, surprise revelations in November of a new and massive North Korean uranium enrichment centrifuge facility, international opinion was already beginning to worry about the intentions of the Kim Jong-il administration.

The decision by the North to fire a salvo of artillery shells at South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island on November 23, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians, seemed to be part of a pattern of deliberate provocation by the North. Determining the intentions of the North is always difficult. The attack appeared to be an effort to test the political resolve and military preparedness of the government of Lee Myung-bak, while shoring up the authority of the North Korean government. It is facing economic difficulties at home and undergoing a politically challenging leadership transition from an ailing Kim Jong-il to an untested and largely unknown heir-apparent in the form of Kim Jong-un, the 27 year old youngest son of the Dear Leader.

The exchange of artillery fire between the two Koreas marked a sharp escalation of tensions. This rare instance of the North striking at the land-based territory of the South was a departure from past engagements confined to maritime skirmishes in the contested area of the West (or Yellow) Sea. It was also a stand-off that threatened to escalate very rapidly into a potentially catastrophic full-blown military exchange between the two sides.

Despite these tensions, in January 2011 the mood appears to have changed sharply. Both Korean governments seem to be signalling a much more accommodating, constructive approach to one another in each side's respective New Year's statements, and are expressing a willingness to engage in direct talks as a means of avoiding further conflict. This more ameliorative rhetoric, while welcome, raises important questions about the prospects in 2011 for a genuine improvement in relations between the two Koreas. Worrying as the events of last year have been, one notable benefit has been the beginning of what appears to be a new spirit of resolve and cooperation between the United States and its core Asian allies. Washington has long enjoyed close and effective relations with Seoul and Tokyo. The difference now is that this partnership appears to be evolving from two separate but important bilateral partnerships into a more substantive and somewhat novel trilateral arrangement. Political trilateralism has existed in the past, but the common challenge posed by the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) appears to be pushing this relationship in a more substantive direction, with scope for new, unprecedented security and intelligence minilateral cooperation between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.


In war, and disputes in general, there are typically two or more sides to every conflict. For the Republic of Korea (ROK), and much of the international community, including the United States, the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong was an act of deliberate and reckless provocation. By contrast, the DPRK presented its intervention as a defensive response to hostile actions on the part of the South - both the ROK's marine corps based Hoguk (Defence of the Country) military manoeuvres of November 22nd and, most importantly, the South's live-fire drills that took place on the 23rd in advance of the North's artillery barrage.

The key contextual issue in this dispute is the absence of any consensus between North and South regarding the formal territorial demarcation line separating the area in which Yeonpyeong, along with four other contested islands, is situated. The so-called Northern Limit Line (NLL),which the South sees as defining the boundary of South Korean maritime space and sovereign control, was established following the 1953 armistice that signalled the suspension of formal military hostilities between North and South. Disputes surrounding the absence of a commonly agreed maritime boundary have been compounded by disagreement over the geographical reach of each side's territorial waters, defined in terms of the distance these waters extend beyond their respective coast lines. The South, along with the United Nations Command (UNC), initially, in the aftermath of the Korean War, argued for a minimalist posture, advocating a limit of three miles. The North has adopted a more expansive position, defining its territorial waters as extending variously between twelve and as many as fifty miles beyond its coastline. Applying either of these last two measures, Yeonpyeong and other contested islands in the West Sea fall within the North's jurisdiction, and on this basis the DPRK has long argued that vessels travelling to and from these islands must seek permission to do so from Pyongyang.

So pronounced is the disagreement between North and South over maritime boundaries that the West Sea has been a regular site from the 1970s onwards for occasionally intense naval clashes between the two countries. In November 2009, a North Korean patrol boat, the Tungsan'got-383 was escorting Chinese and DPRK fishing vessels in waters close to the NLL. On crossing two kilometres south of the line, the North Korean side became involved in a heavy exchange of fire with a number of South Korean vessels that inflicted heavy damage on the DPRK patrol vessel and ended up killing the North's ship's captain. To some observers, the legacy of this tactical humiliation for the North is a key to explaining why Pyongyang may have chosen to retaliate in a tit-for-tat fashion by authorising an attack on the Cheonan.

Alongside this important history of contested territory is an important political context that appears to have contributed to growing distrust between the two Koreas. In October 2007, the progressive ROK administration of the late President Roh Moo-hyun agreed with the North, as part of the inter-Korean Summit, to establish a 'special peace and cooperation zone' in the West Sea, intended to enhance confidence-building measures between the two sides and materially lower the risk of conflict in the region. In early 2008, the new conservative administration of Lee Myung-bak effectively walked away from this important understanding, choosing instead to make any future aid to and dialogue with the North conditional on advancing measures to dismantle and eliminate the DPRK's nuclear weapons programme. This tough posture, while it had the merit of distinguishing Lee from his predecessor, contributed to a marked cooling of inter-Korean relations, and may plausibly have been seen by the North as another act of intentional provocation by the South.

Toughness and the need to appear resolute in the face of the North's efforts to test the South's resolve is key to understanding the actions of President Lee. Elected in 2008 on a ticket that explicitly advocated a break from the Sunshine Policy that had been central to the engagement strategy of both Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, Lee had - for reasons of political consistency - little choice but to respond vigorously to the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong. Nonetheless, in the immediate aftermath of the November 23 shelling by the North, Lee had adopted a pragmatic posture, seeming to want to minimise any risk of escalation of the conflict. However, public opinion in the South has acted as a major break on any initial instinct that Lee may have had to adopt a cautious stance. South Koreans have become increasingly anxious and angry in the face of worsening tensions with the North. Opinion polls from as recently as March 2009 have indicated that only 29.5 percent of South Korean respondents expressed 'concern' about insecurity on the Korean peninsula. By March of 2010, in the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking, this figure had dramatically risen to 66.8 percent, and after the Yeonpyeong shelling the numbers had been ratcheted up to 81.5 percent. So intense was this pressure, that it appears to have prompted the president to fire his defence minister, Kim Tae-young, at the height of the stand-off with the North - arguably a singularly odd decision in the midst of strategic crisis, but one which may have made sense politically, giving the weakened domestic position of the president.

With domestic politics seemingly driving both Koreas into an uncompromisingly adversarial show-down, President Lee committed the South to carry out further military exercises on Yeonpyeong on December 20. In anticipation of this, the North threatened to retaliate and to launch a 'sacred war' against the South, raising widespread fears that the situation was about to spiral out of control, plunging the peninsula into full-scale war. Yet, at the 11th hour, the North blinked, choosing simply to ignore the South's second round of exercises on the island, as well as a much larger set of military manoeuvres that took place on the peninsula proper, close to the 38th parallel, on December 23.

How should one explain this unexpected exercise of self restraint on the part of the North? It may simply have been a demonstration of the effectiveness of deterrence. The Obama administration's deployment of the USS George Washington to the West Sea and its firm and very public support for its South Korean alliance partner reinforced the strategic reality that the North remains outgunned by the US and its ROK ally. Equally important, North Korea's own ally, China, may have played a key role behind the scenes in persuading the DPRK leadership to refrain from further provocations. In public, the Chinese leadership has adhered consistently to a position of not blaming or criticising to the North, However, according to Shen Dingli, a respected international relations specialist at Fudan University, in private (and perhaps in part with added prompting from the US) the Chinese moved in late December to restrain the North.

One, somewhat ironic consequence of the North's restraint, is that it is now able to present itself as the voice of moderation in the current dispute. Indeed, on January 10, it formally invited the South to participate in talks on enhancing bilateral economic ties, while on January 13 it used a diplomatic hot line to call the South. Part of the motivation behind such initiatives may be a desire to secure a propaganda victory. Indeed, facts on the ground suggest that there still remains much to divide the two sides. The North continues to bolster its military deployments close to the five contested islands in the West Sea, while the South has made it clear that it wants both an apology and an admission of responsibility from the North for both the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong shelling before it is prepared to countenance a return to substantive discussions.

Limited Dialogue Prospects

Both Koreas face political obstacles at home that may limit their room for cooperation. In the wake of a surprise decision by the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) to reject the president's appointment of his presidential secretary, Chung Tong-ki, as head of the Board of Audit and Inspection, speculation has increased that Lee may becoming a lame-duck President. This is despite having two more years of his five year presidential term to serve. In such a context, his opportunities to offer concessions to the North may be severely limited.

In the North, the political tussle over the succession process to replace an ailing Kim Jong-il may be a source of unexpected domestic instability. South Korean media reports have suggested that a purge has been underway since December intended to limit the authority of prominent officials, including most notably Jang Song-taek, the brother-in-law of Kim. Given his age (he is 64) and considerable bureaucratic experience, Jang has been seen by some as an important source of stability and institutional continuity, able to function as a de facto political regent, providing guidance to the new heir apparent, the much younger Kim Jong-un. If these reports of internal dissension are to be believed (and one should keep in mind that reports of internal political change in the North, particularly those emanating from the South, are often highly contentious), then the political transition process in the North may be much less secure and pre-determined than initial indictors have suggested.

In the light of such political uncertainty, the initiative for promoting a political breakthrough may rest necessarily with external political actors. Here, the political auguries are relatively encouraging. The Obama administration appears to be moving away from its relatively cautious DPRK policy of 'strategic patience' that has defined its posture for the last two years, and towards the more active pursuit of talks with the North. In early January, it sent Stephen Bosworth, the president's special representative on North Korean issues to the region for discussions not only with the South Koreans and the Japanese, but also importantly with the Chinese. China, given its substantial economic investments in the North, its acute sensitivity to the risks associated with strategic uncertainty on the peninsula, and its desire to avoid a destabilising regime collapse in the DPRK, has sound, self-interested reasons to support Washington's more pragmatic approach. At the same time, Sino-US relations have become more contentious in recent months, given US concerns about China's expanding military and power-projection capabilities in the Pacific, most notably its planned acquisition of aircraft carriers, its development of sea-based Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMS), and, most recently, reports of a new generation Chinese stealth fighter-plane.

Politics will, once again, be likely to act as a break on dramatic progress. The Chinese are, nominally at least, sympathetic to the contextual arguments that present the North as a victim rather than the aggressor in its recent stand-off with the South and will be reluctant to do anything - at least in public - that can be construed as selling their North Korean ally short. President Obama, for his part, must be mindful of the need to avoid a rift with the new 112th Congress in which the Republicans now have a much enhanced political position. Particularly in the influential House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, now chaired by the hawkish Republican representative Ileana Ro-Lehtien, the administration can expect to encounter strong opposition to any notion of compromise with or concessions to the North.

For now, the international community can be cautiously optimistic about future prospects given this convergence of views amongst the key policy actors, the common recognition of the need to prioritise the importance of minimising the security risks on the Korean peninsula, and the new signs of enhanced security cooperation between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

(John Swenson-Wright is an Associate Fellow with the Asia Programme at Chatham House.)


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