Friday, May 21, 2010

Was S.Korea sinking an 'act of war'?

The US definition for a "act of war" is any act occurring in the course of a) a declared war; b) an armed conflict, whether or not war has been declared, between two or more nations; or c) an armed conflict between military forces of any origin [Cornell Univ]. However, while speaking at a Pentagon press conference Defence Secretary Robert Gates refused to characterize the sinking of a South Korean naval ship by a North Korean torpedo as an 'act of war'. He said the US will consult closely with the South Koreans, but it's up to them to determine the next move. "The key thing to remember here is that this was an attack on a South Korean ship and the South Koreans need to be in the lead in terms of proposing the way forward," Gates said.

It is a difficult move for the US and indeed South Korea. Striking back in any military capacity, while understandable, might provoke an 'all-out war' as North Korea has threatened. With the north believed to hold nuclear weapons and with strong ties to Beijing, this issue is likely to end with piecemeal sanctions and harsh words but little else.

With 30,000 US service members stationed in South Korea, Gates was pressured to address the possibility of becoming embroiled in a conflict. "If there were a problem in Korea our main arms would be the Navy and the Air Force," Gates said. But such a conflict would stretch the US military significantly. The United States is already in a long running conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the proposition of getting bogged down on another front is not pleasing.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Thursday there was no interest in seeing the Korean peninsula "explode", but he said there needs to be a meaningful response. "Clearly this was a serious provocation by North Korea and there will definitely be consequences because of what North Korea has done," Crowley said.

The South Korean warship Cheonan sank mysteriously in March killing 46 and leaving 58 survivors. But it has taken weeks to establish the cause. An international team of investigators concluded that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine was responsible for the explosion that ripped the 1,200-tonne corvette in two. "The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation," an official report into the incident said [Report: PDF].

Britain and the US immediately threw their support behind the report's findings. Britain's foreign secretary William Hague said, "The UK and international partners are committed to working closely with the Republic of Korea as they consider an appropriate multilateral response to this callous act." The White House has described the attack as an act of aggression that constituted a challenge to international peace and security. 

The issue is set to dominate the agenda during Hillary Clinton's Asian tour, which began yesterday [BBC]. Kurt Campbell, America's most senior diplomat for Asia, said that a "central issue of discussion" for the US Secretary of State's talks with Chinese officials would be "their assessments of developments in North Korea and their reaction to the report". However China has been mute in their response only saying that "all parties should exercise calmness and restraint, properly deal with relevant issues, and avoid escalation of the situation."

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak told his security council the sinking of the Cheonan on 26 March had violated the UN Charter and the 1953 armistice which effectively ended the Korean War. Ordering "systematic and resolute counter-measures against North Korea so that it cannot repeat this reckless provocation", he nonetheless stressed the need for caution. "Since this case is very serious and has a grave importance, we cannot afford to have a slightest mistake and will be very prudent in all response measures we take," he said.

But his Defence Minister Kim had harsher words saying the North had "surpassed the limits" set on the two states by the armistice and "for those acts, the government will definitely make sure North Korea pays." To the north a spokesman from the National Defense Commission of the DPRK rejected the conclusion of the report as a "fabrication" and warned that any retaliation would lead to an "all-out war". That is unlikely to happen, but tensions in the region have certainly raised. The sinking of the Cheonan may well have been an act of war, but to respond in kind might bring the world that much closer to another world war [BBC / Times / Telegraph / Xinhua / Fox].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

No comments: