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War Games on the Korean Peninsula

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
July 26, 2010

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Tensions are high on the Korean Peninsula, with the United States and South Korea conducting the largest joint military exercises (NYT) in years. The exercises are taking place in the Sea of Japan, despite protests from China and threats of retaliation from North Korea. While the joint military drills are routine, as is Pyongyang's brinkmanship, they come amid growing hostilities between North Korea and South Korea and the failure of U.S. and international efforts to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons. Domestic instability arising out of uncertainties surrounding Kim Jong-Il's succession makes North Korean actions ever more unpredictable. U.S. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley did not rule out a provocative act by North Korea in retaliation to the joint exercises.

The White House said the joint exercises were a "clear signal of deterrence to the aggression of North Korea and in support of the defense of South Korea." They are one of several measures the United States and South Korea are undertaking as a show of strength against Pyongyang, which is seen as responsible for the March 26 sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan. An international investigation team led by South Korea found North Korea guilty of torpedoing the ship, which killed forty-six South Korean sailors, but North Korea denies all charges. Other measures include new U.S. sanctions targeting the North Korean elite and a visit to South Korea by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The latest sanctions are expected to strengthen existing ones imposed by the international community after Pyongyang's nuclear tests in 2006 and most recently in 2009. But there is near consensus among experts that sanctions can't work without China's cooperation.

China provides essential food and fuel aid to North Korea and is central to the survival of Kim Jong-Il's regime and to any international effort to denuclearize North Korea or normalize relations on the divided peninsula. But Beijing's actions have been guided by concerns for North Korea's stability, and it has been reluctant to use coercive measures against the Kim regime. However, some in China's leadership are beginning to question the merits of Beijing's North Korea policy, says Evans J.R. Revere, senior director of global strategy firm Albright Stonebridge group. "The fact that there is a dissenting view in Beijing," Revere told a recent CFR meeting, "gives us some hope that perhaps we can continue to attack this issue with the Chinese and get them to move another few steps in a more positive and cooperative direction."

Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says China is caught in an "unenviable position" and the best option may be for it to call for a resumption of the Six Party Talks on North Korea's denuclearization.

Crisis Guide: The Korean Peninsula

A new CFR Task Force Report argues that the "United States must seek to resolve rather than simply manage the challenge posed by a nuclear North Korea." It says the United States must continue to press for denuclearization through the Six Party Talks and consider bilateral talks for negotiating a permanent missile-testing moratorium. The report also recommends Washington prioritize contingency plans given political volatility surrounding regime succession in Pyongyang.

Separately, new reports highlight the dire straits of North Korea's economy and the continued suffering of its people. A report by Amnesty International says North Korea continues to face a food and economic crisis, and it documents widespread malnutrition-induced illnesses and lack of basic healthcare in the country. Roberta Cohen of the Brookings Institution argues human rights must be part of any bilateral or multilateral talks with North Korea. Positive movement on most issues is unlikely given the current tensions between the United States and North Korea, says Cohen, adding: "That, however, should not prevent the United States and others from identifying the human rights issues where progress might be achievable."

Additional Analysis:

Bruce Klinger, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, writes that the United States and its allies must take all appropriate steps to prepare for potential new and expanded North Korean military provocations and attacks.

In this Expert Brief, CFR's Nicole Lewis says China is unlikely to exert more pressure on North Korea, so Washington should redirect its own role in brokering inter-Korean peace and engaging Pyongyang.

Background:

Here is the text of the UN Security Council's statement condemning the sinking of the Korean naval ship, Cheonan.

This Council Special Report examines three potential succession scenarios in North Korea and offers policy recommendations on how the United States can improve its ability to manage sudden change in the peninsula.

This CFR Crisis Guide looks at the roots of the dispute between North and South Korea.

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