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Precarious Balancing Act on the Korean Peninsula

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
December 20, 2010

Precarious Balancing Act on the Korean Peninsula - precarious-balancing-act-on-the-korean-peninsula


South Korea's live-fire drills conducted today on the island of Yeonpyeong -- the target of last month's North Korean artillery shelling that cost South Korean civilian lives for the first time since the Korean War -- have drawn extraordinary international attention. The concern is that exercises meant to deter North Korea may become a trigger for escalation of inter-Korean confrontation, though North Korea's declaration that the exercises were "not worth reacting" (BBC) to shows limits to its desire for escalation.

The UN Security Council debate held yesterday on the drills foundered because China blocked language condemning North Korea (WashPost) for the Yeonpyeong artillery shelling and has protected North Korea from direct UN censure for its provocative actions. China has called upon all parties to exercise restraint without assigning blame to North Korea for past provocations, while the United States and South Korea condemned North Korea and conducted joint naval exercises at the end of November in response to the Yeonpyeong shelling.

The United States, Japan, and South Korea are also pressing China to take a stronger role with North Korea. The three countries held a foreign ministers meeting in Washington on December 7 that called upon China to restrain North Korea's actions. Admiral Michael Mullen stated in Seoul on December 8: "China has unique influence. Therefore, they bear unique responsibility." But high-level meetings led by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg on December 16 in advance of Hu Jintao's planned visit to Washington next month appear to have had no effect on Sino-U.S. differences despite joint pledges to promote inter-Korean dialogue (KyodoNews) as a step toward easing of tensions. This gap must be closed if North Korean provocations are to cease.

A second factor driving South Korea's need for military exercises on Yeonpyeong Island is public opinion. Recent surveys by the East Asia Institute and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies (KoreaHerald) show high anxiety among South Koreans frustrated by North Korea and by what they feel is an inadequate response by their government to the Yeonpyeong shelling. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's newly appointed Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin stated in his National Assembly confirmation hearing (BBC) on December 4 that "if North Korea provokes again, we will definitely use aircraft to attack North Korea."

After the announcement of exercises, North Korea responded that "if war breaks out, it will lead to nuclear warfare and not be limited to the Korean Peninsula." North Korea has a better track record on implementation of threats than negotiated commitments, but it has also used bluffing tactics to heighten ambiguity and induce caution by its adversaries. The problem lies in knowing the difference between threat and bluff. One possible target of a North Korean escalatory counter-response is a South Korean tower near the DMZ (KBS) that has been authorized for the first time since 2004 to carry a Christmas display.

Although both sides know that they cannot risk a war, the risk of miscalculation has been heightened as a result of recent North Korean provocations. North Korea benefits from continued provocations to the extent that the incidents provide a pretext for even stronger domestic political control, reveal military and political weaknesses in South Korea, and divide the United States and China. An effective policy response must address these vulnerabilities by strengthening South Korean defenses and closing the U.S. gap with China on how to deal with North Korea.

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