[Viewepoint] Korean Peninsula after Yeonpyeong

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[Viewepoint] Korean Peninsula after Yeonpyeong

Heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula in the wake of North Korea’s uranium enrichment revelation and deadly artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island show no signs of abating. In fact, the situation may worsen before it cools down.

When North Korea showed U.S. nuclear scientist Siegfried S. Hecker the construction site of an experimental light-water reactor and uranium enrichment facility on Nov. 12, it informed the world that the North had a new source to develop nuclear weapons besides its plutonium facility.

The the attack on Yeonpyeong Island occurred 11 days later.

Pyongyang’s history of provocations in response to international sanctions - missile test firings and nuclear tests in particular - is all too familiar. But the Yeonpyeong incident was more shocking because it was a direct attack on South Korean land and targeted a civilian area.

The artillery barrage has spurred the South into upgrading its readiness. This week, plans were unveiled to turn maritime border islands into high-tech military bases. Not surprisingly, the North declared a state of “quasi-warfare” in regards to the joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises in the Yellow Sea last month and warned against the South’s planned artillery drill on Yeonpyeong Island. On Dec. 20, the South defied the North by going forward with the drill.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that Pyongyang will shrink completely from the South Korean military’s resolve to retaliate hard against another attack.

Why is North Korea taking such a hard-line stance? The latest provocations stemmed from the current South Korean and U.S. policy known as “strategic patience.” This policy, adopted after the North’s second nuclear test in May 2009, implies that South Korea and the U.S. will not make any concessions until North Korea demonstrates its sincere willingness to denuclearize. To achieve their aim, Seoul and Washington are applying a two-track approach of dialogue and sanctions.

North Korea seems to have been taken aback by this new approach. To be sure, this is the first time since the nuclear crisis in the early 1990s that South Korean, U.S. and Japanese policies toward Pyongyang have been in synch.

South Korea and the United States took a stance of nonresponse unless the North demonstrated contrition and showed sincerity. Indeed, fence-mending proposals such as South-North summits and family reunions have gotten little attention. Meanwhile, the U.S. has said that nothing reaches Washington without passing through Seoul.

Pyongyang’s nuclear revelations and the Yeonpyeong shelling constituted a direct assault on the strategic patience policy. The motivation was to get more international aid and help the North achieve its goal of becoming a “strong and prosperous state” by 2012.

The goal now has special urgency; it must be reached to ensure a smooth transfer of power to Kim Jong-il’s youngest son Kim Jong-un, secure justification for a third-generation succession and establish the young leader’s authority. To breathe life into its economy, the Pyongyang regime must improve its relationship with Washington. Given the time pressure, the North took the extreme action of attacking a civilian area for the first time since the Korean War.

Will the North’s action succeed? Violence will no longer prompt South Korea and the U.S. to scurry back to negotiations with the Stalinist regime. Nor can the North expect much mileage from its uranium enrichment revelation. Based on strict sanctions imposed on Iran for its uranium enrichment program, it is unlikely the U.S. will take a flexible approach toward the North. The U.S. has also repeatedly vowed that it will “not reward North Korea’s bad behavior.”

Ultimately, how sincerely the North takes steps to denuclearize will determine whether the six-party talks will resume. Just before the South’s artillery drill on Dec. 20, Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visited Pyongyang and was told international inspectors would be allowed back and 12,000 plutonium fuel rods would be sold and shipped out.

The concessions did not receive much regard from Seoul or Washington. The Yeonpyeong incident has soured the atmosphere. The attack violated the armistice that ended the Korean War and was equivalent to declaring a resumption of the war.

As China continues to provide cover for North Korea, the chances of UN sanctions are slim. However, independent sanctions by South Korea, U.S., Japan and the EU are likely.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the North must change its behavior for a real breakthrough. However, there appears to be little room for optimism. More North Korean provocations, such as further clashes on the maritime border, a third nuclear test and long-distance missile test firing, should not be discounted.

The Pyongyang regime may be reluctant to take a step back on either the nuclear issue or relations with South Korea because it must cement support from its military for a smooth transfer of power to Kim Jong-un. Pyongyang’s hard-line strategy is, after all, based on internal political reasons as well as improvement of external relations.

Therefore, given the North’s stance and international sanctions in place, the escalated tensions on the Korean Peninsula will continue for now. Nevertheless, South Korea must be prepared to execute wise diplomatic moves soon.

Chinese President Hu Jintao will visit Washington in January, and that may rapidly lead to multilateral dialogue on the Korean Peninsula situation.

*The writer is a research fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute.

By Lim Soo-ho
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