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May 31, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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Politics with Paul

Blame for the 26 March attack on the South Korean navy ship Cheonan, which sunk with a loss of 48 lives, has finally been placed squarely with the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK). This follows investigations by the South Korean government, and three independent experts, which found indisputable evidence of a torpedo attack. This has resulted in a significant increase in tensions between the two rivals on the Korean Peninsula, which is feared may extend to those countries’ traditional allies—the United States and China.

This isn’t the first attack since the 1953 armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War was signed. There have been a number of other incidents that have allegedly been orchestrated by the DPRK against South Korea, most significantly the 1983 assassination attempt on South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan at the Martyr’s Mausoleum in Myanmar (Burma), and the bombing of a Korean Air passenger jet mid-air in 1987. However, this latest attack is the most significant hostile engagement since naval skirmishes between the two countries in 1999, and has resulted in a serious reaction from the South.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said last week, “From now on, the Republic of (South) Korea will not tolerate any provocative act by the North and will maintain the principle of proactive deterrence. If our territorial waters, airspace or territory are violated, we will immediately exercise our right of self-defense.” Lee said, “our ultimate goal is not military confrontation”, but he found it viable to impose some measures against North Korea, including the refusal to let North Korean ships into South Korean waters, and the freezing of trade and exchange between the two countries.

True to form, the North Korean regime has been quick to threaten war on the South, claiming that “Our army and people will promptly react to any ‘punishment’ and ‘retaliation’ and to any ‘sanctions’ infringing upon our state interests with various forms of tough measures, including an all-out war.” Despite Lee’s rhetoric that the South intends to avoid military conflict—as Choi Seong-Iak, an analyst at SK Securities points out—the key to the seriousness of both sides’ threats will be tested by “what measures South Korea will take, and how North Korea will react to them”.

The United States has played a central role in South Korea’s development since the Korean War, and has unsurprisingly been quick to condemn the attack and show their support for Lee. In Beijing last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “The United States fully supports President Lee’s responsible handling of the Cheonan incident, and the objective investigation that followed, which we and other international observers joined. The measures that President Lee announced in his speech are both prudent and entirely appropriate.”

Clinton commented that she was “in the midst of very intensive consultations with the Chinese Government on this issue”, which is especially important considering China’s tradition of support for the DPRK. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu called on “all parties to exercise calmness and restraint over relevant issues of the sinking”, if hostilities increased between North and South Korea, it could be expected that China would channel its support towards communist North Korea.

Scoop columnist and comparative, international and strategic politics specialist Paul Buchanen believes that “South Korea has few options at its disposal”, and has warned “Although North Korea does not have the capability to launch a nuclear strike in spite of its efforts to build an effective nuclear arsenal, it does have ample capability to launch significant missile attacks on Seoul and other parts of South Korea as well as beyond.” As a result he believes any military response from South Korea to DPRK provocations could result in a “high-intensity conflict” that could lead to the invocation of security guarantees from the United States and China respectively.

Buchanen speculates that this attack was simply a bid to bolster support for Kim Jong-il’s hard-line son, Kim Jong-un as successor to the older Kim, in the face of the increasingly imminent death of the ‘supreme leader’. There has been much contestation around the future leadership of the DPRK between hard-liners, and soft-liners alike, and as Buchanen writes, “some intelligence analysts believe that Mr Kim authorised the attack in order to shore up hard-line support for his son”. Buchanen believes that this “could be true [as] the younger Kim has no power base outside of his father’s closest associates”.

This showing of militarist power, Buchanen argues, is a “tried and true authoritarian method of shoring up elite unity and public support” and as a result, South Korea would be best placed to respond to the North Korean attack in the subtlest way possible. By limiting the DPRK’s militaristic opportunities, South Korea may be able to ensure that Kim Jong-il is unable to stir up popular support for the regime, which, following that leader’s death, could ultimately lead to regime-change in the communist state, which relies so much on the character of its leaders.

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks could either set the stage for the downfall of the DPRK regime, or could see the region disintegrate into armed conflict.

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