Friday, May 28, 2010

Wen Jiabao in Seoul to discuss crisis

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrives in the South Korean capital of Seoul today [Friday 28/05/2010] and will meet President Lee Myung Bak and Japan's Yukio Hatoyama. The focus of the discussions are likely to revolve around the building tension between North and South Korea. China's premier will likely be pressured to acknowledge that North Korea torpedoed a the South Korean warship Cheonan. 

China has failed to make any significant statement on the issue while the rest of the international community has condemned the attacked and given their tacit support to South Korea. Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun would only repeat a call for "restraint" by both sides and said China had no "firsthand information" on the sinking.


The sinking of the Cheonan warship by a North Korean torpedo fired from a submarine on March 26th resulted in the deaths of 46 sailors. Half the crew were saved. The incident has angered many South Koreans who want revenge. In Seoul Thursday thousands spilled onto the streets calling for retaliation. An estimated 10,000 people including war veterans rallied in the city. "Let's kill mad dog Kim Jong-Il!" they shouted as some protesters burned a large North Korean national flag. Experts in the Korean martial art taekwondo used their feet to smash wooden boards bearing the slogans "North Korea" and "Revenge" [Sinchew].


Few countries have disputed the investigation report's findings which revealed "overwhelming evidence" that North Korea had attacked the Cheonan. North Korea have dismissed the findings as a "fabrication", China have said little, and Russia is sending a team to verify the findings of the report. Others have accepted the evidence that North Korea was behind the attack [Report - PDF]

Tensions rose a little further on Thursday. North Korea scrapped a pact aimed at preventing accidental armed clashes with South Korea at their flashpoint sea border. Meanwhile South Korea's navy staged an anti-submarine exercise in its first show of strength since the confrontation began [BBC].


China wants to avoid a conflict on the Korean peninsula. According to Shen Dingli, vice dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Shanghai's Fudan University, China is concerned that taking South Korea's side may provoke North Korea into further escalations and even lead to war. Any conflict would greatly affect China. The two countries share a 1,415-kilometre border and an alliance going back to China's 1950 entry into the Korean War. China's two-way trade with North Korea amounted to $2.7 billion last year, comparatively small to the hundreds of billions of trade with the rest of the world. A conflict would likely lead to significant problems for China. If it did not ally with the US, Europe and other Asian countries a massive export trade could be compromised. By ostracising North Korea, China risks unravelling a long history of partnership and trade. A war would undoubtedly lead to an influx of refugees across the border and into north China [Business Week].

Bringing China into the international fold will be difficult. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remained optimistic however as she conducted a whirlwind diplomatic mission to Japan, China ans South Korea. Speaking in Beijing on Tuesday at the conclusion of two days of talks, she said, "We expect to be working together with China in responding to North Korea's provocative action and promoting stability in the region." But several days later China still remains mute. "They won't be able to ignore the truth," South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung Hwan said Thursday at a joint press conference with Hillary Clinton in Seoul. 


While China decides what side to play with, other countries have made their choice clear. The US military is preparing exercises with South Korea in anti-submarine maneuvers and interdicting vessels. The US has about 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of its Korean War involvement in the 1950s. "This is the worst situation we've had since the (1950-53) Korean War," said Yang Moo-Jin, of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies. "Military conflict cannot be completely ruled out." The two Koreas appear to be on a collision course and to have "neither the will nor a strategy to exit from this very extremely difficult phase," he told AFP, saying the crisis could be ended only by the United States and China [Hindustan Times].

Some analysts say that a conflict would likely be limited and not escalate. Peter Beck, a North Korea specialist at Stanford University's Asia-Pacific Research Center, said, "We have to take the threat of further escalation very seriously. Maybe things have to get worse before they get better. Given the tough stance that Seoul, with Washington's support, has taken, Beijing's role is more and more critical to pull the parties back from the edge."

Daniel Pinkston, Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the situation is "pretty serious but I still think the likelihood of escalation into a full-scale war is low". Despite all the noise coming from from Pyongyang, US officials say they've seen little physical evidence that North Korea might actually be preparing to go to war. Just hours after Seoul blamed the North for the sinking of the Cheonan, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il publicly ordered his armed forces to get ready for military action, according to sources quoted in The Guardian. But two US national security officials, asking for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said they were not aware of any intelligence reporting on significant military mobilisation or redeployments inside North Korea. 

The North Korean military is always on the move somewhere, one of the officials said, but at the moment whatever movements are being noted by Western intelligence agencies are regarded as not particularly threatening. A third US foreign policy official, who also asked for anonymity, told Newsweek's Declassified that US agencies are picking up "nothing of extreme concern" in what North Korean forces are currently doing. 

Many expect more sabre-rattling however. "I think more provocations could be coming," Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr., a professor of international relations at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, said. "The next ones will be very different though, because Pyongyang would like to catch us 'off-guard'." Bechtol, a former senior analyst for Northeast Asia on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw a range of possibilities for North Korea to keep nerves jangling in the region. "I see more tension at the Kaesong Industrial Complex," a collaborative economic venture with Pyongyang in North Korea, "perhaps some saber rattling over the loudspeaker broadcasts that the South will be starting up again soon, possible ballistic missile tests, and yes, perhaps even another nuclear test."

History repeated

But he does not see an massive escalation. "I do not see an artillery barrage from the DMZ [De-Militarised Zone] coming - unless the North Koreans really want to start another war, which I doubt," Bechtol added. Bruce Cumings, a longtime scholar on Korea and Japan who chairs the Department of History at the University of Chicago, said everyone needs to take a deep breath. "I think this is being blown way out of proportion," Cumings said. "In 1999 there was a bigger incident in the same place where 30 North Koreans died and 70 were wounded, and the North Koreans chose not to respond --probably because Kim Dae Jung [who pursued reconciliation with the communists] was president, and they were making plans for the June 2000 summit."

The sinking of a South Korea frigate, "was probably related to their anger over the [current] South Korean president going back on 10 years of reconciliation," Cumings said, as well as the US-South Korean Foal Eagle naval exercise just off its shores. "Of course it is reprehensible that they killed 46 sailors, but the boat was in disputed waters," Cumings said, where clashes have been frequent.

In three previous engagements, "North Korea's aging naval ships have taken a pounding from South Korea's far more modern and better-armed vessels," The Washington Post's Blaine Harden and June Lee reported after the March incident. Kerry Patton writing on the Examiner website states that the Cheonan sinking while a major act of aggression, is not as uncommon as many would like to believe. The DMZ which separates the two Koreas witnesses continuous acts of aggression. The difference between annual incidents and this most recent is the magnitude of the event. Even with such magnitude, this should be construed as a test.


Alex Jones of Prison Planet entered into the blame game as he accused the US of complicity in arming North Korea [Prison Planet]. Others meanwhile are predicting WW III. According to one report, Sheikh Imam Rashid, Chief Imam and Spiritual leader of the Salawatia Muslim Mission in Ghana has predicted World War III will break out within a week if the United Nation's fail to use diplomacy to resolve the brewing tension between North and South Korea [Peace FM / Citi FM]

The Imam says that if the US military were to attack North Korea, it was likely that Iran would strike somewhere in the Middle East and Hezbollah would see its goals through of waging war this summer against Israel. If this were to occur, the United States would have little resources to support Israel and the likeliness for the entire world witnessing World War III would be paramount, Sheikh Imam Rashid says.

The possible scenarios that could play out are many. North Korea may back down at the threat of hostilities, or capitulate should a conflict occur. But there are real dangers that anything more than a measured response could quickly escalate drawing other countries into a messy war. The media, as is often the case with such events, is playing up the situation. But some of the scaremongering is real.

Reunification sought

North Korea, sometimes referred to as the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea], is seeking reunification and claim that the south is being run with the help of 'imperialists'. The country's official website states: "Korea is an independent and sovereign state, but the South is still controlled by the imperialist interests and the US troops .If any South Korean citizen tries to visit North Korea crossing the big concrete wall, he'll be killed by the american [sic] soldiers. The 'Security Law' in South Korea forbides [sic] to any South Korean citizen to talk or read about the North or else he'll be punished with jail or even death penalty."

"Since the end of the War, one of the main worries of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was the Unification of the Korean families," the site states and quotes 'The Great Leader', "'To unify the divided country in this moment is the supreme national task of all the Korean people, and we cannot wait just one moment to achieve it."

North Korea's aim is clear, their resolve is more difficult to gauge. And despite the speculation and analysis, it it difficult to predict an outcome. Asia correspondent for the LA Times, who has reported extensively in the region and is currently based in Cambodia, says we should learn from history. "It's difficult to compare such different societies and cultures as those in Cambodia and North Korea, but the lesson is clear," Donald Kirk writes. "There can be no real compromise with the Kim regime. The history of regimes such as Cambodia's under the Khmer Rouge is that they do not willingly yield, do not suddenly adopt humanitarian policies and do not give up the props of their rule, notably their weapons."

"It's wishful thinking to expect North Korea to shift its policies or honor any agreement on much of anything, including its nuclear weapons program. It took an upheaval to bring about relief from suffering in Cambodia, and it will take another on that scale to reform North Korea."

China's position

But by taking on North Korea, one may take on it's large friend, China. Kim Jong Il's visit to Beijing shortly after the sinking of the Cheonan saw the leader being welcomed with open arms. Wu Bangguo, China's top legislator, spoke of the two countries writing "a new chapter of bilateral relations in the next 60 years" [Xinhua]. 

Meanwhile Hu Jintao, China's president, said, "the traditional friendship between China and the DPRK is the common treasures of the two governments, parties and peoples, and it is the historical responsibility of the two sides to push forward their friendship with the progress of the times and from generation to generation" [Xinhua]. With such stated bonds China's position is truly difficult as it tries to evaluate what course it should follow. 

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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