High tension in the Korean Peninsula | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 01, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 01, 2010

High tension in the Korean Peninsula

Photo: AFP

On November 23, the North Korean military fired artillery shells on and in waters surrounding Yeonpyeong Island, only 8 miles from the North Korean coast. The attack caused 18 military casualties (2 marines killed, 6 heavily injured and 10 lightly injured) and 5 civilian casualties (2 killed and 3 injured) on the South Korean side.
The Island lies two miles from disputed Yellow Sea border. About 1,600 civilians live on the island, and a marine garrison of about 1,000. Rich fishing grounds exist in surrounding waters. It was the scene of inter-Korean naval clashes in 1999 and 2002. In the 2002 exchange of fire, 13 north Korean sailors and 5 south Korean sailors were killed.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, on November 24, called the attack "a premeditated provocation and an indiscriminate attack against civilians."
Seoul has said it will send more troops and guns to border islands and change the rules of engagement to let the military hit back harder in the event of another North Korean attack.
The South Korean Defence Minister Kim Tae-young resigned on November 25 amid intense criticism of South Korea's response to an artillery attack. A commentator on the conservative South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo assailed the minister, saying that the military had been outgunned and under-prepared.
President Obama called the South Korean president to express US solidarity and talk about a coordinated response. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has also "strongly condemned" North Korea's actions and urged the countries leaders to "adhere to the Korean Armistice agreement."
China expressed concern over the incident and called for both countries "to do more" to contribute towards peace.
On November 26, the Bangladesh government, in a press release, stated "any act of provocation is condemnable and should be avoided."
The border between the two countries is a relic of the Korean War of the '50s. At the conclusion of the 1950-53 Korean War, the line was unilaterally drawn by the United Nations Command, beyond which South Korean vessels were not allowed to venture.
While the Northern Limit Line (NLL) is now considered the de facto sea border by South Korea and America, North Korea has always disputed it, drawing a very different line of its own.
The drawing of the NLL, with a northward curve from the land border, left in South Korean hands five islands that lie just off the North Korean coastline along the Yellow Sea.
On November 16, the South Korean joint chiefs of staff announced that the annual theater-level "Hoguk" joint exercise would be held from November 22 to November 30.
On the morning of November 23, North Korea sent a telephone message to the South Korean side demanding a halt to the 'Hoguk" exercise. South Korea proceeded with the routine exercise as planned.
Later in the morning, according to South Korea, they fired shells from the southwest part of Yeonpyeong Island at waters toward the southwest (in adiagonally opposite direction to North Korea) as part of a monthly artillery exercise. South Korea claims the waters where the shells descended is an area where many exercises had previously been held.
North Korea, on the other hand, reportedly claims that South Korea "was derailing the process for improving inter-Korean relations, scuttling inter-Korean Red Cross talks and driving the situation to the brink of war by pursuing its policy of confrontation" with North Korea.
North Korea has declared that plans for a US-South Korean naval exercise on November 27-28 would bring the peninsula "closer to the brink of war," state media reported.
A long-standing policy of the Chinese has been not to destabilise North Korea because it will have a spillover effect on China in terms of refugees from North Korea. It continues to ask South and North Korean leaders to exercise restraint and refrain from using violence and taking provocative actions that cause instability.
It is reported that the North Korean artillery attack was a surprise to the Chinese leaders. During the recent visit to China by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-ill, it was reported that the Chinese side told the North Korean leader that they should communicate better so that China would not be surprised by North Korean actions.
Despite Chinese aid and support to North Korea, Chinese diplomatic initiatives keeping the Korean Peninsula from violent confrontation are defied by North Korea. Cai Jian, a Professor of Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, reportedly stated: "At the moment China has limited influence. On one hand, it is unhappy with North Korean actions and its provocative behaviour, but it still has to support North Korea."
Many observers say that the attack was meant to highlight the military credentials of the heir apparent Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of the leader Kim Jong-ill.
Another possible explanation behind the attack, according to them, could be that, with many Yeonpyeong residents reportedly saying they will not return to the island after the bombardment, North Korea may have advanced towards one of its goals -- if that goal is to reduce the islands' South Korean civilian population.
North Korean leaders are aware that they are safe from military retaliation because of possession of nuclear weapons. The stubborn refusal of the US to provide aid and concessions makes the North Korean leaders uneasy. Analysts suggest that the North Korean attack sends a message to the US and South Korea of North Korea's increasing frustration.
The attack has focused global attention once again on what is now one of the world's tensest flashpoints -- the maritime border between the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea.
Whatever may be the reason, the attack on the South Korean Island, killing defenceless civilians, is unacceptable and goes against all international norms.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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