Sunday, 7 April 2013

Urgent talks with North Korea are for peace not appeasement

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Kim Jong-un meets top North Korean military officials
These are worrying days as the tick tock of the countdown can be heard each day, towards conflict in the Korean peninsula. There can be little doubt that First Secretary Kim Jong Un was incensed with the way that his country was treated after a satellite launch on 12 December 2012. It is at best unlikely that satellite launch technology will apply to military missile technology, given it has no re-entry shield, no armed warhead and no targeting capacity. Nevertheless, the near universal condemnation infuriated the North.
On 12 February, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test resulting in the United Nations agreeing a new round of sanctions on 7 March. With the US and South Korea then carrying out joint military exercises that started on 1 March, the timing could not be worse and both countries should have appreciated that it would cause anger in Pyongyang, even if such anger may at times be synthetic.
By 11 March the North unilaterally scrapped the armistice that had been the key diplomatic thread holding together peace in the peninsula.
Understandably, South Korea was commemorating the deaths of forty six people in the sinking of the Cheonan warship blamed on the North in 2010 on 26 March but this provided an opportunity to ratchet up the escalation with Kim then terminating the 'hotline' the next day, used as a back stop to prevent misunderstandings and keep some political channels open. The response from the US? To drop dummy bombs on a South Korean island using stealth bombers on 28 March, which played into the dangerous game.
On 2 April, North Korea tore up its commitment to mothball its nuclear facility at Yongbyon and two days later moved a missile to the the east.
North Korea is an easy source of late night show scorn, derision and jokes but at the end of the day, no one wants to see this political situation slip into physical conflict that takes lives. The US has again been caught out with little apparent understanding of the situation even though President Obama has made much of his 'Pacific Pivot' strategy. Belatedly the US is trying to calm the escalation but so far it isn't working and there is no sign of proactive steps to engage in discussions, even through the United Nations or independent third party groups.
It is not appeasement to open a dialogue without any pre-conditions. Talks do not mean giving into threats but as with any other conflict and disagreement, communication is vital to find ways to build trust and confidence between two sides. 
FIRST ON CNN: North Korea could be planning missile launch, official says
Taepodong-class missile Intermediary Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), about 20 meters long seen in 2012
There is speculation that a test missile will be launched off the east coast of North Korea this week or next, into the Sea of Japan or aimed at Oki Islands or part of South Korea or Japan. This will provoke a counter wave of tough speaking and military manoeuvres in South Korea and by the US with perhaps North Korean ships or ports being quarantined, further prompting the next response from the North. It could mean the firing of armed missiles into South Korea or Japan or an invasion of islands around South Korea such as Seogeom, Maldo or Yeonpyeong. 
File:North Korean missile range.svg
Where does it end? Neither South Korea nor the US will sit back and allow any part of South Korea to be attacked or captured. North Korea may then trigger waves of salvos of artillery fire over the border. Sleeper agents in the South will be 'painting' the artillery fire to hit key military and industrial targets. That will produce a huge firepower of response over several days with large numbers of missiles and bombs being dropped to significantly reduce the North's capability to wage war. Is that likely? No. Could it happen? Yes. One misunderstanding by deliberation or by accident, could trigger a scenario that leads to loss of life.
At some point a dialogue has to start and so the sooner communications are opened and meetings are held the better.  Through dialogue comes constructive steps of improving relationships and the hope that North Korea will eventually lead towards a path of democracy or at least peaceful engagement in the international community. Whether through the Six Party Talks or another forum, there is an urgency now to get started and decelerate the dangerous situation. 

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