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Korean tension affects East Asian stability

The current tension on the Korean Peninsula continues to have repercussions on the security and economic climate of East Asia, and indeed the rest of the world. Since the end of the Korean War some six decades ago, the stability of the two Koreas has occasionally been rattled, and official peace on the peninsula remains elusive.

Nobody really imagined that the current situation on the peninsula would transpire, with both neighbors beating the war drum and preparing for the possibility of a new and bloody war. Interestingly though, it is precisely because of the ongoing provocations from the North that progress could be made in the coming months. Both China and Russia ― Pyongyang’s closest friends ― are now helping to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table to resume the six-party talks, along with the United States, South Korea and Japan.

North Korea has been using all the diplomatic and military tricks that its entrenched leaders can think of in order to draw global attention and to increase its political leverage. Of course, the country continues to face economic difficulties, especially food shortages. So, Pyongyang continues to create political and diplomatic incidents in order to divert attention from its domestic problems and drum up support domestically. Obviously, hostile reaction to some of the recent military maneuvers across the border are part of the game plan ― something which is hard for the outside world to comprehend.

Now the South Korean government has responded with military alertness and preparedness as never before seen. For years, Seoul has taken a passive military posture for fear of provoking the volatile North Korean military establishment. This time around there is no such restraint.

The firing of missiles at the South’s Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea in December shows that Pyongyang will do almost anything on the spur of the moment to achieve its political objectives. This time, despite the North Korean threat of using direct force against South Korea, Seoul continued to ignore Pyongyang’s chest-beating and proceeded with live-fire military training. Since then, it seems that North Korea has backed down a bit.

With the new but unsettling leadership changes in the North, it is hard to predict what will happen next. It is this kind of unpredictability that the international community must continue to work with when dealing with Pyongyang.

Beyond the current six-party talks format, ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan has recently urged all members of those talks to make full use of the ASEAN region-wide security dialogue, the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Since all the members sit on the ARF, this should serve as an alternative forum to discuss the stability of the Korean Peninsula. But somehow the ARF members have not picked up the idea. North Korea is more inclined toward the ASEAN forum than the major powers, so it could be a good jump-start.

It would be in North Korea’s interest to engage the regional endeavor, as it is less partisan than the six-party format. Although the ARF might not produce any significant breakthrough, it could still serve as a much-needed confidence building measure.

When Pyongyang signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2008, there was hope that the hermit kingdom would seek to enter the regional fold and would be an active partner in striving for region-wide peace and prosperity. So far that has not happened. It is time for a reboot.

(The Nation (Thailand), Jan. 7)
Korea Herald daum