Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Tread carefully with North Korea

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As tensions grow with North Korea (DPRK), so the calls for sanctions increase. It is highly likely that North Korea was responsible for sinking the South Korean navy ship the Cheonan on 26th March killing 46 sailors and triggering a furious response from President Lee in Seoul. Even the United Nations has condemned the action.
Part of the sunken warship Cheonan
The Cheonan being recovered after sinking

Such an act of violent aggression is unacceptable and Pyongyang needs to understand that given the history between the two countries, such an attack would be considered an act of war. However, Pyongyang is stating that it did not authorise an attack and such claims are a "fabrication". The South responded with a propaganda war dropping leaflets and using loudspeakers urging North Koreans to defect. Whilst such actions are to a degree understandable they are hardly helpful to resolving the situation. It was unlikely that such tactics would have any diplomatic effect other than provide further excuses for the North to escalate matters.

Sure enough, North Korea has now stated it will sever all ties with the South and is continuing to ratchet up the rhetoric. Given the evidence that a North Korean manufactured torpedo hit the Cheonan it is almost certain that the Government must have been involved if not authorised it. Perhaps it was a reckless accident, in which case, North Korea should come clean and take responsibility. Covering up the actions whether accidental or deliberate will not win it any friends.

North and South Korean soldiers stand guard on the border

The Chinese are taking a cautious line understandably but behind the scenes must be deeply angered that at a time when the US and China are engaged in improving relations the whole issue of 'North Korea' is climbing rapidly the diplomatic agenda.

President Hu addresses China-US Dialogue

This is China's backyard and as a superpower is demonstrating leadership in dealing with the ongoing erratic and dangerous games played by President Kim.

It would not be surprising if it it turned out that the North had explicitly ordered the attack to position itself for further concessions with China and the US and negotiate additional help and support as its economy falters. The CIA reports that many North Koreans suffer from "prolonged malnutrition". With South Korea accounting for 38% of the North's exports, the ending of trade will yet again hit ordinary people hard.

This is a game of brinkmanship. Where will all this lead to? With North Korea seemingly intent on developing "offensive" nuclear weapons there can be no doubt that it would use such weapons if President Kim felt sufficiently threatened. The breakdown of the Six Party Talks (North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the US) following a second nuclear explosive test and a series of cruise missile tests in May 2009 has left a diplomatic vacuum. However, is it a coincidence that President Kim hinted at a resumption of talks earlier this month when he visited China?

Maximum range of North Korean missiles
The map shows estimated maximum range of a successful launch. 
Range is also affected by the size of the payload.

The maze of diplomatic talks needs to be approached with the utmost care and China is critical to their success.The stakes are high. Yet the fact that North Korea wants to talk seems to demonstrate that they are engaging in a high profile 'gunboat diplomacy'. Perhaps it is new aid or cash that they want. China can earn a lot of appreciation if it can lever a deal out of the forthcoming storm. With President Kim Jong-il looking frail on his visit to China will the young (28 years old), reclusive, heir apparent Kim Jong-un succeed him as President and bring North Korea in from the cold?

South Korean protester shouts slogans while holding a picture of a boy believed to be the third son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Kim Yong-un, February 19, 2009
Kim Jong-un - the next President of North Korea?


  1. One factor is also very important - elections in South Korea. The SK president was facing a very hard and effective opposition about his plans to stop the capital relocation. He was facing a risk of a election humiliation and desperately needed some event to change the election topic in a new direction. Why NK gave him NOW this opportunity is beyond any reasonable explanation. Or did NK give him anything? On a joking note, one could remember a James Bond movie about a sinking British military ship and it took James Bond a lot of effort to stop the war provocation. Where is James Bond now?

  2. UN reports North Korea circumventing sanctions and exporting nuclear technology.


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