North Korea upped the ante when its artillery rained around 200 rounds on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on November 23, killing two South Korean marines and injuring eighteen. Two civilians were also killed. South Korea retaliated by its own artillery fire, scrambling jets and putting the country on the highest non-war time crisis alert. A close analysis suggests that the South Korean military was not fully prepared for the attack, an alarming situation. Defence Minister Kim Tae-Yong had to step down.
Before looking at reasons for the North Korean action a brief look at Pyongyang’s growing threat to the East Asia region would be pertinent. It conducted its second nuclear test in 2009 as well as a long range ballistic missile test. In March this year, it torpedoed the South Korean frigate Cheonan, killing 48 sailors. Just before the latest artillery attack on South Korea, North Korea invited American nuclear physicist Freidrick Hecker and gave him a tour of new uranium enrichment plant using the centrifuge process. Hecker saw about a thousand centrifuges and was told two thousand centrifuges were working to enrich uranium to 20 % to 30 %. This was a deliberate action to show the USA and the world that sanctions were not working. To set up an uranium enrichment facility it is not only the centrifuge technology gifted by late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in exchange for missiles and missile technology, but other components also had to be acquired from abroad.
Apart from thumbing its nose at the sanctions, these actions also showed that North Korea had friends who helped its nuclear programme. It is difficult to say if Pakistan still assists the North Korean programme, especially after the government army supported nuclear network of Pak scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan was exposed.
North Korea expresses its gratitude to China’s material and moral support for its nuclear programme without actually saying it in words. But in doing so it has cleverly netted China as a partner in crime. Nothing can come in and go out of North Korea by air without using China’s ground fuelling facilities and China’s air space. Of course, Pyongyang has used the sea route also. But transportation to and from Pakistan is the safest through China as it does not use any other air space. It is well known that the A.Q. Khan Laboratory’s special air line, the ‘shaheen’ airline, carrying “special” cargo used to refuel in China paying in cash to avoid any paper trail.
The shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeon Island and causing causalities has other aspects to consider. First, it violated the 1953 Armistice to which North Korea is a signatory. Next, if the first such attack on South Korea’s land which takes the confrontation to a new level.
Why did North Korea resort to the brinkmanship game, far surpassing its previous actions except for the 1982 attempt to assassinate South Korean Prime Minister in Myanmar. Following this, Pyongyang was in an international dog-house, but buoyed by its only saviour, China.
It is very well known that the North Koreans are hard bargainers, shifting positions without warning, on the Korean denuclearisation issue. Mainly, it would use the nuclear bogey , charging some members of the six-party talks (China, North Korea, USA, South Korea, Japan and Russia) of reneging on promises. Most analysts are of the view that Pyongyang demands more concession of food and oil supplies by periodically heightening tensions.
The latest action is generally attributed to US-South Korean military exercises around its periphery, recent talks between the US and South Korea to place US nuclear weapons in South Korea, and the leader succession process in North Korea. One, two or all three issues may have contributed to the situation.
The North Korean succession issue is usually extended. The first supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung took time to get his son Kim Jong-Il, the present leader established after demonstrating to the powerful generals that he was a strong and capable leader. The current succession process is Kim Jong-Il establishing his youngest son Kim Jong-Un as the successor. Kim Jong-Un was recently promoted to the rank of a general in the Korean People’s Army (KPA), though there are reports that there may have been some opposition. Kim Jong-Un’s sister was similarly promoted, which may suggest some compromise. But the heir apparent has been blessed by China. There could have been less provocative ways to prove Kim Jong -UN’s profile since a South Korean frigate was also destroyed in March to do so.
More provocative for Pyongyang would have been discussions between the US and South Korea on possible deployment of US nuclear weapons in South Korea. This would have been as alarming to China as to North Korea especially since South Korean Defence Minister Kim gave a hint to the possibility publicly. China is the central player in the Korean issue and the stability of the region where most major powers have a stake. In the Cheonan sinking incident in March, China refused to make a determination on culpability and called for restraint. In the November 23 incident China refused to hold North Korea’s culpability. Pressed hard by international opinion it only dismissed as ‘painful’ and continued to urge restrain from all sides. There was nothing new from China’s side.
Beijing, of course, opposed the US-South Korea military exercise in the yellow sea which started on November 21, with the USS George Washington aircraft carrier finally taking part. The exercises, however, was scheduled long before the November 23 incident. North Korea warned there could be blood bath.
China has now moved to distract attention from the November 23 incident. It has called for an early six-party talk early next month, and sent its most experienced negotiation, Dai Bingguo to Seoul to calm down the South Koreans.
Finally, there appears to be a split in the Chinese leadership with a small section getting exasperated with the North Korean behaviour. Some Chinese political and security experts connected to the hierarchy are openly speaking that the North Korean “card” is becoming a liability. But the majority of the top leadership are of the view North Korea cannot be discarded. It has too much strategic value, to China.
China has always had niggling problems with North Korea from the early 1990s, but the bonus outweighed the negatives. North Korea has been its card of unpredictable consequences which could set the region on fire. Pyongyang has also used this to extract the maximum from China. If North Korea implode there will be chaos in North East China as refugees pour in. A surrendering North Korea amalgamating with the South will make a East and West Germany unification situation and create a unified Korea with nuclear weapons capability. This may be pro-US and form a grouping with the US and Japan that would severely constrict China in the region.
At the same time, Beijing realises the increasing threats from North Korea can encourage South Korea and Japan to go nuclear. That also is against Beijing strategic domination of the region. This crisis will be gradually diffused, but the contention platform has been raised higher than before. China is not free of North Korea’s clutches, and Pyongyang will again raise the template. North East Asia is heading to difficult complexities.
The bottom line at the moment is thus. China has lost trust of both South Korea and Japan. China’s top level attitude towards South Korea is also intriguing. President Hu Jintao sent “cordial greetings” to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at this critical juncture and not warmer greetings as is the norm. The US has ignored China’s mild protest against the aircraft carrier George Washington taking part in the exercise in the Yellow Sea which Beijing has started considering as its own pond. South Korea, Japan and the USA have rejected China’s call for six-party emergency talks next month with North Korea. North Korea’s reaction to the South Korea–US joint exercise in the Yellow Sea is unpredictable though a military retaliation from Pyongyang is unlikely. China has a lot on its hands.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:email@example.com)