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Crisis on the Korean Peninsula

Friday, January 28th, 2011

China-North Korea Friendship Tower

China-North Korea Friendship Tower

The idyllic life on once-prosperous Yeonpyeong Island, enriched by the plentiful fish and crabs swarming the embracing waters of the Yellow Sea, may be gone forever.

People picking through the rubble spoke of their island home with nostalgia and longing for the lives and times they once had. “I’m very sorry to leave my hometown,” said housewife Choi In-young. “Once it was paradise, now it’s hell.” At home when shells roared into the neighborhood on the afternoon of November 23, she said all the windows were knocked out. “My home is still safe, but I saw smoke from houses around me.”

For most of Yeonpyeong’s 1,700 residents, the island provided a comfortable living that few on the mainland 40 miles to the east would imagine. Many made small fortunes off the crab that are plentiful in the Yellow Sea, especially at the height of the crabbing season in June. As the winds of late fall sent temperatures plummeting, no one relished the cold uneasy winter ahead. Choi Seng-il, head of a citizens’ committee, doubted if more than a handful would return in view of the naval exercises in which the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington had led an American strike force into the Yellow Sea for four days the week after the attack. “The weather is getting cold, and our houses were destroyed,” he said. “It’s not going to be possible to live here.”

A row of charred barstools in front of a scorched counter reminded a visitor to the island of the good times enjoyed within easy sight of the North Korean coastline – and North Korean gunners – eight miles away. The narrow street of shattered shops and homes is strewn with shards of glass, twisted walls and broken roofs. “I was in my house when the shelling began,” said 80-year-old Chae Suu-yong, grabbing and packing some clothing into a shopping bag before catching the daily ferry back to the port city of Incheon. “We fled to a shelter. We don’t plan to go back.” Chae has no doubt the North Koreans mean it when they say the Korean peninsula is “on the brink of war” and more attacks are inevitable. “The North Koreans will attack again,” he said with a fatalistic certainty. “We are really afraid to live here.”

The specter of a powerful American naval force steaming into the Yellow Sea escalated the potential for conflict to a new level of intensity. The sound of rhetoric rather than gunfire seemed most likely to echo across those disputed waters as North Korea challenges the legitimacy of the Northern Limit Line below which its vessels are banned. Nonetheless, the decision to include the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington in a strike force of five vessels defied not only North Korean threats, but also the objections of China as to what the Chinese saw as an intrusion into their own sphere of influence.

Rather than exercise pressure on North Korea to refrain from attacks, the Chinese showed no sign of minding North Korea’s decision to fire on Yeonpyong Island. The North Korean excuse was that South Korean naval vessels had ventured into North Korean waters and their target was the South Korean marine base on the island. Two of the four people who died in the attack were marines, and the other two were civilians working on a construction project. A number of civilians were wounded, but most of the island’s 1,700 people escaped. Many were fishing at sea or digging for oysters in the tidal flatlands or on the quay where the ferries arrive once or twice a day from Incheon.

The attack was the first instance of shelling of a civilian population center, but China refused to condemn it. Rather than face South Korean demands for China to take a position, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi cancelled a planned visit to Seoul. Instead, he told South Korea’s foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan in a phone conversation that China wanted “stability” on the Korean peninsula. Yang was far more concerned about the U.S.-South Korean exercises. While the Chinese media denounced the exercises, Yang stuck to what he said was China’s principled position “That American warships should not display a show of force in the Yellow Sea.” The Chinese showed no sign of accepting the South Korean argument, as expressed by Foreign Minister Kim that the exercises would not have been necessary “had it not been for North Korea’s provocation.” Finally, China called for “emergency” talks among the six nations that had previously been engaged in futile talks to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program.

The Chinese position was basically the same as in the aftermath of the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette, the Cheonan, in those same Yellow Sea waters in March in which 46 sailors died. The United States at the time yielded to Chinese demands for the George Washington not to enter the Yellow Sea, moving war games in April to waters off the east coast. This time, however, the feeling in both Seoul and Washington was that the American strike force should go into the Yellow Sea regardless of Chinese objection and North Korean threats. Against this background, the aircraft carrier, with a combat-ready air wing on board, joined the South Koreans in an exercise that would keep the waters boiling for five days of war games in the aftermath of North Korea’s artillery barrage.

The show of force was dramatic, but the American forces stayed well below the Northern Limit Line. North Korea breathed fresh outrage, promising to launch fresh attacks against hostile forces intruding so much as one millimeter into their own waters.

North Korea, hours after the barrage, was boasting of its success in defeating the South Koreans, spreading fears that North Korean forces might strike again anywhere, on sea and along the 160-mile land demilitarized zone that has separated the two Koreas since the armistice ending the Korean War was signed in 1953. Given that strategy, the appearance of the George Washington in the Yellow Sea was clearly another act in the drama, but not a sign of mounting hostilities.

The U.S. command covered the announcement in a veneer of verbiage intended to show that the operation was not only “defensive in nature” but “well planned before yesterday’s unprovoked attack.” The purpose, said the command, was “to improve our military interoperability” – meaning coordination with South Koreans – while demonstrating “the strength of the Republic of Korea-U.S. alliance and our commitment to regional stability through deterrence.” The real problem, however, was that the U.S. and South Korea seem incapable of persuading China ever to bring enough pressure on North Korea to persuade the North to pull back from a strategy of intermittent violence and intimidation.

The United States has for years been pleading with China to bring the North into line as a prerequisite for any consideration of returning to the six-party talks, including host China, the United States, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas. President Obama buttressed American diplomatic gestures during a half-hour telephone conversation with South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak. Obama had told Lee that China needed to take a firm stand against the North. A Blue House spokesman said the two leaders “agreed that the indiscriminate attack against the territory of the Republic of Korea and its civilians was a premeditated provocation.”

Neither Obama nor Lee, however, seemed willing to go beyond joint exercises. They apparently did not discuss the critical question of when or whether the United States would send troops to South Korea’s defense with orders to fire back if North Korean forces fired on South Koreans. Nor were elements of the 28,500 Americans in uniform ordered to join the South Koreans in the Yellow Sea on anything other than training exercises.

All that, however, hardly diminished the medium and long-range problems posed by a regime in the midst of a leadership transition. The current speculation is that Kim Jong-il’s son and heir presumptive, Kim Jong-eun, has spurred on the aggressive policy to show his toughness and win support among hard-line generals. The young man, in his late 20s, would not be giving orders to grizzled generals who got their first taste of combat in the Korean War, but he could well see his advocacy of unremitting toughness as a means to show the generals he’s ready to take over power whenever his ailing father leaves the scene.

In a curious footnote to a day of feverish alarm, father Jim Jong-il and son Jong-eun were reported to have been visiting a soybean factory on the day of the attack on Yeonpyeong Island. They also, however, have been visiting military units, getting the image of the son before people who had never heard of him until he appeared at a Workers’ Party Conference and then a parade on October 10 marking the 65th Anniversary of the Workers’ Party. That theory seemed credible in light of North Korea’s revelation of a new uranium enrichment plant nearing completion at its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon. The North’s aging five-megawatt reactor has already fabricated enough material with plutonium at its core for up to a dozen warheads, according to intelligence estimates.

The purpose, as a senior defense official put it, was to give Kim Jong-eun the status of a “strong leader” while U.S. experts, back in Washington, reported on their visit to the uranium enrichment facility on November 12. The nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker, on the faculty at Stanford University after having been in charge of the atomic laboratory at Los Alamos, returned to Washington reporting that what he had seen was “stunning,” that the facility already had 2,000 centrifuges and that it would soon be able to go into operation. His North Korean guides claimed the purpose of the 25-megawatt reactor would be to produce nuclear energy, not warheads, but that claim lacked credibility since it was on the same complex where North Korea had been developing its nuclear weapons program for more than 20 years. Satellite imagery revealed a rectangular structure for the uranium facility next to the site of a cooling tower that was blown up, amid worldwide publicity, in 2008 in a display intended to show North Korea’s adherence to agreements reached in 2007 for the North to abandon its entire nuclear program.

North Korea’s eagerness to show off the uranium plant contrasted with North Korea’s strong denials of anything to do with enriching uranium after a senior North Korean diplomat actually acknowledged the existence of the uranium program to a visiting American delegation of diplomats and other senior officials in October 2002. The initial exposure of the program soon led to the unraveling of the 1994 Geneva agreement under which North Korea had shut down its five-megawatt plutonium reactor in return for the promise of twin light-water nuclear energy reactors. North Korea finally reversed course and began boasting of the program in response to the conservative policies of President Lee. He demanded North Korea show serious signs of giving up its nuclear weapons before he would agree to ship the 500,000 tons of food and fertilizer the South had been sending annually to North Korea. This being part of the Sunshine policy initiated by Kim Dae-jung after his inauguration to a five-year term in 1998 and carried on for another five years by his successor, Roh Moo-hyun.

Both Kim and Roh died in 2009 after the failure of a policy that included Kim’s summit with Kim Jong-il in June 2000 and Roh’s summit with the Dear Leader in October 2007. North Korea’s program for building a second reactor, and then the attacks on the Cheonan and, eight months later, on Yeonpyeong Island, marked a disturbing trend in the standoff. China’s overwhelming concern remains “stability” on the Korean peninsula – that is, maintenance of a status quo in which China insures the survival of North Korea as a protectorate, but also carries on huge commercial relations with South Korea. China’s ultimate desire clearly is to dominate a region in which war games led by the U.S. carrier George Washington in the Yellow Sea represented a dangerous intrusion on an area that China views as its own sphere of influence.

Donald Kirk is author of “Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae-jung and Sunshine,” published in hardback in 2009 and in paperback last month.

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