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Issue #1483      1 December 2010

Korean peninsula on the brink

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula escalated last week with the exchange of fire between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the deaths of four South Koreans. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao described the situation as “grim and complicated”. He said that “Relevant sides should maintain the utmost restraint and the global community should do more to relax the tense situation.”

The DPRK warned that the US was driving the peninsula to the “brink of war” with “reckless military provocation”. If a single shell of the enemy is fired inside its territorial waters, a resolute DPRK government promised prompt retaliatory action. The US added oil to the fire, commencing a new round of even more aggressive and provocative military exercises on Sunday, November 26, just five days after last week’s exercises. The DPRK, Russia and the People’s Republic of China have called for a resumption of the Six-Party Talks on denuclearisation, but so far the US has refused. (The other two parties are South Korea and Japan.)

Far from heeding calls to relax the situation, South Korea has threatened retaliation, with one military leader promising “revenge”. The South is increasing its maritime forces on the islands off the west coast of the DPRK. The Australian government has fallen into line behind the US and promised to support South Korea’s response. The US is beating the war drums emphasising the DPRK’s nuclear capacity.

The US has described this week’s joint four-day exercises with South Korea as a “show of force” to “deter the North” – an admission that they are rehearsing for war against the DPRK. The nuclear-powered USS Washington, with 75 warplanes and a crew of 6,000, joined the exercises on Sunday.

The military exercises are provocative acts of aggression, preparations for war against the DPRK which lives in constant fear of a real attack on its shores. They also pose a serious threat to China which has repeatedly requested the US not to hold exercises in its exclusive economic zone in the Yellow Sea without first gaining permission – as required under international law. Imagine the US response if China were to hold similar exercises within US territorial waters!

The US’s immediate target is the DPRK, with the aim of counter-revolution and incorporation in the capitalist state of the Republic of Korea so that it can establish bases on the border with China.

The land, air and sea Hoguk Exercise last week involved 70,000 South Korean troops, 600 tracked vehicles, 90 helicopters, 50 warships and 500 aircraft. Yeonpeyong island is just 12 kilometres off the border of the mainland of the DPRK. South Korea uses Yeonpeyong as a permanent military base. The South admitted firing live artillery from the island during the military exercises with the US last week but said the fire was not directed at the DPRK. The North then fired on the island aiming at the marine base there. The South then fired shots back at the North. The order of events is not disputed, but the maritime border between the north and south is.

Yeonpeyong is one of five islands off the coast of the DPRK which the South lays claim to. Following the Armistice that ended fighting in the 1950-53 war, the US drew up a maritime border between the north and south. Instead of the border being drawn straight out to sea it wraps around the north’s coast in a westerly and then northern westerly direction.

Not surprisingly the DPRK refuses to accept the US drawn border which excludes the five islands from its maritime territory and contravenes international law. The most northern of the islands lies 180 kilometres from South Korea, but just kilometres off the mainland of the DPRK. According to the China Daily, there are around 5,000 South Korean marines based on the islands and South Korea has now announced it will step up its military forces on them.

When the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, it should have been followed by political discussions for the peaceful resolution to the conflict, including the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea. The US walked away from the Agreement, refusing to sit at the table. In total abrogation of the Agreement, the US turned South Korea into a US military and nuclear base. Since then the people of Korea have been faced with the daily threat of nuclear war.

The DPRK described the firing of shells from the island into what it recognises as its territorial waters as “politically motivated provocation”. It said it acted in self-defence, making a prompt and powerful strike at the artillery positions from which the enemy fired the shells. It did not, as the Australian government and media would like us to believe set about to attack civilians.

Nuclear threat

The raising of tensions on the peninsula suits US interests, giving it a “justification” to retain and strengthen its military presence in South Korea. There has been a considerable escalation of military exercises over recent months and ongoing refusal to come to the table for the Six Party talks to find a peaceful resolution, including cooperation and eventual unification. The former South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan back in April said Seoul had no intention of hosting US nuclear weapons again. Now the question is back on the table.

The US officially removed its tactical nuclear weapons in 1991, under international and local political pressure. Their removal strengthened arguments for a nuclear-free North. When questioned last week Defence Minister Kim Te-young did not rule out reinstallation of US nuclear arms. It is on the agenda of the newly formed US-South Korean Extended Deterrence Policy Committee when it meets in December. The aim of the Committee is to “enhance deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear programmes”. The US’s concept of “deterrence” is military might and aggression.

The US consistently thwarts attempts to find a peaceful, political resolution which would of necessity mean removing its troops from Korean soil. Its aggression and resultant heightening of tensions in the face of recent progress in cooperation between the north and south provides a “need” for it to retain its bases and up the ante with the reinstallation of nuclear weapons. Its military bases in the South are an important part of its military encirclement of China. The unfortunate death of four Koreans, in particular the two civilians, played into its hands, fuelling hostility and anger in the south towards the DPRK.

The escalation of tensions and other actions by the South, such as cancelling food aid and the Red Cross indefinitely pulling the plug on humanitarian activities, have buried the question of unification - something which is strongly supported by the majority of Koreans. Instead of One Korea, the peoples of the peninsula are now living in fear of another war. Regardless of the US’s immediate intensions – even if only to restore nuclear weapons to the peninsular – the situation could escalate out of control. How can the DPRK know whether or not an exercise would become the real thing? Australia should be doing all it can to ease tensions, such as pressing for the resumption of the Six Party Talks, the cessation of all military exercises in the Yellow Sea and for nuclear disarmament.  


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