David Miller: Peace On The Korean Peninsula?
Can Peace Be Found On The Korean Peninsula?
The timing of the North Korean attack on a South Korean naval vessel this week was no coincidence. With South Korea co-hosting the World Cup, the world’s attention has been focused not only on its team but also on the nation and the people themselves. Amidst all the excitement surrounding the tournament, the issue of the divide that separates the two states and the potential flashpoint that exists on the peninsula was easily forgotten - and was not an issue until the naval clash. It should never have been. However by staging this attack, it was clear that the North Korean leadership were determined to try and spoil the party.
Not only did this attack cause the deaths of four South Korean sailors, it once again highlighted the dangers that remain on the Korean Peninsula. South and North Korea have been divided since the fighting stopped at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War although a peace deal was never reached. This means that both countries are still technically at war. What became a symbol of the Cold War divide remains firmly in place and this is reinforced by the 37,000 American troops that are stationed in South Korea, most of whom are manning heavily fortified positions near the De-militarised Zone.
Despite this continuing tension that has bubbled just beneath the surface, there was hope that the two Korea’s were starting to become closer together. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has embarked upon a course of action known as the "Sunshine Policy" through which he has sought reconciliation with the North through the donation of aid, increased trade and reuniting families that were separated in 1953. Since the mid 1990’s it was thought that South Korean financial aid could be used as some sort of leverage with the North in bringing them out of their self imposed policy of isolation and halt their military belligerence along the border.
The seriousness of this issue has been heightened by concerns over North Korea’s nuclear and weapons policy. Although it is unclear as to how much progress the North has made in building the reactors that can produce weapons grade plutonium, there is no doubt that its missile programme is well developed, and gaining momentum. The Ro-Dong programme has built missiles that can over-fly the Japanese mainland and these developments coupled with uncertainty over the intentions of the Kim regime mean that the situation is unstable to say the least.
The problem here is that the North Korean’s simply use their military strength to try and gain leverage when it comes to issues concerning the peninsula or to focus the attention of their own people and those outside their borders that the communist party is still in power. During the World Cup the North held rallies that praised the communist leadership and it is practices such as this that Pyongyang relies on to maintain its one party state and let the world know that it cannot be taken for granted despite its economic problems.
If there is to be any progress on resolving the North-South Korean problem then war is simply an option, although not practical. It is unlikely that the US and South Korea would move forces across the De-militarised Zone first but in the event of an attack by the North would have little difficulty in defeating the North’s Cold War style armed forces. Another option would be to try and destabilise the North Korean regime however given that the Kim dynasty has held power there since the end of the Second World War and is firmly entrenched by its armed forces then this is not feasible either. Communist governments have adopted what is known as the Penetration Model whereby the Communist Party has infiltrated the military with political officers at every level, ensuring total control. In China and North Korea the military grew out of the Communist Party thus the politicians were able to implement this system more successfully than their Eastern European allies. In the case of the former Warsaw Pact, the Communists inherited an armed force and never implemented the Penetration Model to the extent it happened in Asia hence these militaries stood by and watched their political masters topple in 1989.
The final option is to try and find some sort of political solution with the help of economic aid. The Sunshine Policy appeared to be the most successful attempt that this so far and it will be of no surprise to see it pushed again despite what has happened. The United States was keen to see a political solution found and until this latest incident considered inviting a senior North Korean official to Washington for talks. US financial aid would help develop any solution however the real key is the involvement of China. Beijing is the only country with any leverage over the North and will be vital in cajoling Pyongyang towards talks and possible settlement. If the South and the US can get China to push the North Koreans to the negotiating table then progress can be found. Until then such naval clashes will continue to cause tension and one day may spark war.