People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 20

May 19, 2013



Korean Peninsula on the Boil


Yohannan Chemarapally



EVER since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Korean Peninsula has been the source of serious military tensions that have impacted on the international community. The war which pitted the North Korea, then backed by the Communist Bloc against the US backed South Korea, had ended in a tense stalemate with the Korean nation remaining divided along the 38th parallel. The war, for that matter, is not even officially over as the US has only agreed to an armistice, which is only a temporary agreement for the cessation of war. When the armistice agreement was signed, all the sides involved had pledged that it would be soon followed by a peace treaty that would lead to a final peaceful settlement and reunification of the divided country. Successive US administrations however have been consistently refusing to sign a peace treaty with the North. The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been demanding for the last sixty years for an end to the US military presence in South Korea and the ending of the annual joint military exercises the US conducts on the Korean peninsula. The US keeps around 25,000 to 40,000 troops on the Korean Peninsula. There are many other American military bases near the Korean peninsula, bristling with nuclear weaponry.


This year, the month long US-South Korean military exercises have been more threatening than usual with the Americans deploying nuclear capable B-2 Stealth bombers near the border with the North. The scale of the military exercises has dramatically increased since the death of Kim Jong-Il and the assumption of the top post by his son. The exercises, code named “Key Resolve Foal Eagle” which started in late March have come in the wake of the nuclear and missile tests conducted by the North. Before the joint exercises with South Korea, the US conducted exercises with another of its close allies in the region – Japan. The new right wing prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, is using the alleged threat from North Korea to officially give up Japan’s pacifist policies, which it had adopted after its defeat in World War II. Using the recent developments as a pretext, there is increasing clamor in Tokyo and Seoul for building a national nuclear deterrent of their own.


South Korea had in fact started secretly preparing for a nuclear bomb in the early seventies till it was arm-twisted by Washington to give up on the project. The South at the same time keeps its military budget relatively low in comparison with the strength of its buoyant economy. Seoul prefers to let the US to play the role of its protector while focusing mainly on economic growth. South Korea’s economy is booming in comparison to that of the North, which now has to mainly depend on China for trade as well as aid.


The other long standing demand of the DPRK was the holding of direct talks with Washington to defuse the tensions on the peninsula and hasten the goal of Korean unification. Washington has refused to countenance these demands though there were signs of a rethink during the last months of the Clinton administration. President Bill Clinton had dispatched his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang to kick start talks with the North. Both sides seemed to be on the verge of starting a dialogue but the change of guard in the White House in 2001 once again brought the situation to square one. After the events of 9/11, President George W. Bush put North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran in his “axis of evil”, thus readying the countries for “regime change”. Bush had vowed to “squeeze North Korea with every financial sanction possible”, until the economy collapsed. President Obama is continuing with the same policies.   


But there was a silver lining as far as the North was concerned as the government in the South kept on adhering to the “sunshine policy” that was ushered in by President Kim Dae-jung in 1998. President Kim known as the “Korea’s Mandela” was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The “sunshine policy” had encouraged political and economic engagement with the North, which since the nineties had faced an economic downturn due to a variety of factors, including a repeated cycle of droughts and floods. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc, North Korea’s traditional trading partner, was also an important factor. The scrapping of the “sunshine policy” in 2008 after the coming to power of the right wing Lee Myung-bak significantly contributed to the growing military tensions in the region.


In the elections this year, another right wing candidate, Park Gyeun-hee, narrowly won the presidency against a candidate who wanted to re-start “the sunshine policy”. The new president coincidentally is the daughter of the long serving South Korean dictator, Park Chung-hee. During his term in office from 1963-71, Gen. Park stood out for his hard line polices towards the North and his crackdown on civil liberties internally. He is however credited with being the architect of South Korean economic miracle.




The current escalation of hostilities in the peninsula coincided with the swearing in of President Obama for a second term and the inauguration of the new South Korean president. There were warning signs that things were once again heating up on the Peninsula after North Korea went ahead with its successful satellite launch late last year and followed it up with a nuclear test earlier this year. In all, South Korea has conducted three nuclear tests after walking out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003. The first two tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009. The nuclear test happened after the UN Security Council imposed even more draconian sanctions last December on an already beleaguered North to punish it for its satellite launch. The West succeeded in characterising the launch as a disguised “long range missile test”.


Pyongyang said that a different yardstick was being applied as other nations are allowed to freely launch satellites into space “for peaceful scientific missions”. The North Korean satellite was only one among the 75 satellites launched by various nations, including India, last year. India and Pakistan tested nuclear capable ballistic missiles around the same time the North Koreans successfully launched their satellite into space. South Korea placed its own satellite in space with the help of the US in January this year.


The North Korean government had said that the February nuclear test was in response to “the reckless hostility of the United States”. Pyongyang had warned at the time that it would be left with no option but to take stronger steps if the US “further complicates the situation with continued hostility”. An article in the US journal, Foreign Policy in Focus by Christine Hong and Hyun Le in February noted that it is convenient for Washington to characterise North Korea as “the foremost security threat in the region”. The authors argue that it fits in with the Obama’s policy in the region – that “of strategic patience” on the one hand and alliance with regional hawks on the other hand. James Hardy, an editor with the Jane’s Defense Weekly, wrote that the Obama administration may be using the crisis to further bolster the missile build up in the region in step with Washington’s military “pivot” towards the Asia Pacific.


The new leadership in the North, led by the young Kim Jong-Un, apparently feels that the only avenue open to bring the West to the negotiating table is by increasing its belligerent rhetoric. As Stratfor, a news network having close links with the American intelligence community observed: “Much of North Korea’s behavior can be considered rhetorical, but it is still unclear how far Pyongyang is willing to go if it still cannot force negotiations through belligerence”. In the first week of April, North Korea warned that it had issued clearance for the use of “smarter, lighter and diversified” nuclear weapons in case of an attack on its territory. Before that, Pyongyang had announced that it would be restarting its plutonium reactor at Nyongbyon. The reactor was voluntarily shut down in 2007 after the US and South Korea promised to supply electricity and build two new reactors under international safeguards. The promises were never kept. The central committee of the ruling Workers Party recently announced that North Korea’s nuclear weapons were “a treasure” that would not be bartered away for “billions of dollars”. The US has been demanding that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons as a precondition for talks.


The Obama administration knows fully well that there is little likelihood that the North will exceed its rhetoric but is taking no chances. All the same it is becoming clear that the Washington wants to take some time off from the ongoing exercise in saber rattling. The Cuban leader, Fidel Castro in his “Reflections” published in early April, provided some friendly advice for the North Korean leadership. Fidel said that the crisis enveloping the Korean peninsula was the most serious one since the Cuban nuclear crisis of 1982, which almost unleashed a holocaust. “Now that the country (North Korea) has demonstrated its technical and scientific achievements, we remind her of her duties to the countries that have been her good friends, and it would be unjust to forget that such a war would particularly affect more than 70 per cent of the planet”, cautioned Fidel. The Cuban leader also had words of advice for the American president about the dangers of playing nuclear roulette. “If a conflict of that nature should break out there, the government of Barack Obama in his second mandate would be buried in a deluge of images which would present him as the most sinister character in the history of the United States. The duty of avoiding war is also his and that of the people of the United States”, wrote Fidel.




 In a significant move, the US announced on April 7, that it was postponing the testing of a Minuteman 111 Intercontinental Missile. The missile was scheduled to be launched in the second week of April from a military base in California. The decision came shortly after the North Korean government said that it had moved two medium range missiles to a location on the country’s east coast. An unnamed US official told the media that the postponement of the test was done to “avoid any misperception or miscalculation”. The official said that it was a “logical, prudent and responsible action to take” while insisting that the proposed long range missile test was unconnected to the escalating crisis on the Korean peninsula. Senior US officials have told the American media that the Obama administration while trying to maintain military pressure on Pyongyang is also trying to create a more advantageous scenario for talks to end the current crisis.


In early April, the North Korean government had told the foreign diplomats stationed in its capital that it could not guarantee their safety till such time as US-South Korean military exercises continue. The exercise will go on for most of April. Pyongyang fears that the military exercises are a prelude to a full scale military attack. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Pentagon’s Pacific Command had approved a detailed plan to ratchet up tensions with the North during the war games conducted with the South Korean Army. US Stealth and B-52 bombers made “mock bombing raids” in broad daylight near the border with the North. Experts have described this kind of a military exercise as “sub critical warfare”. Much of the North was carpet bombed by the US during the Korean War.


In the last week of March, North Korea had cut the military hotline it maintains with Seoul to keep abreast of military movements of their respective armies along the border. Before that, Pyongyang had renounced the 1953 armistice agreement and declared that it was in a “state of war” with the South. In the first week of April, the North closed its doors to South Korean workers employed in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, run by Korean conglomerates inside the North. The crisis has already started taking a toll on the South Korean economy. The capital, Seoul is only around 50 km from the demilitarised zone dividing the two countries and would be easily devastated in case of an armed  conflict erupting. South Korea and the US have now reached a new agreement whereby the US will have operational control of the South Korean army if war breaks out.  


After the invasion of Iraq and of Libya, the North Koreans may be justified in thinking that they are next on the American hit list. At this juncture, the North Korean leadership must be feeling more isolated than ever. China, their strongest ally, had voted with the US to impose additional sanctions after the satellite launch last year. China has however been consistently advocating the resumption of the six party talks that were last held in 2008 and has voiced its disagreement on additional sanctions being imposed on the country. In the second week of April, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said that Beijing was opposed to “provocative words and actions” from any party and that “it would not allow trouble making on its doorstep”. He stressed that the only way to resolve the situation was through dialogue. The Obama administration is so far resolutely holding out against the resumption of the dialogue process. Senior American officials repeatedly keep on harping that “bad behavior” should not be rewarded.