Korea’s Sore Spots Get Poked

The clash between North and South Korea continues to heat up. The New York Times today published an article on the suspension of the hot line between the navies of both countries. This presents a serious problem for both of the Koreas. The South defends a UN-supported demarcation of the ocean, but the North claims that its territorial waters extend much further south of the UN line, a claim that goes deep into SK waters.

The North went further and stated that it would attack any ships in “its” waters. So far, South Korean ships still continue to patrol this area and there have been no incidents, but if the North decides to act on its bluster, the ramifications will be far greater than the current situation suggests.

The United States backs South Korea fully, and Secretary of State Clinton was there earlier this week to demonstrate that. While the US can and will assist the South Koreans (even though American military might is already stretched thin by the two current wars), the Chinese are an unknown quantity.

Chinese leadership, while communist, does have ideological splits with the North Korean leadership. These splits have become slightly apparent as noted by the NYT here

While China’s decision-making on core foreign policy issues tends to be secretive, American officials said they had picked up hints that there was some disagreement within the leadership about how to respond to North Korea’s behavior, pitting civilian party leaders against the military.

The debate surfaced last year after North Korea tested a nuclear device, American officials said, and has accelerated since the attack on the South Korean ship, the Cheonan. Chinese civilian leaders have expressed growing puzzlement and anger about the North’s behavior, these officials said, while military officials tend to see the North’s moves as more defensible given the threat North Korea perceives from the United States.

China and North Korea, onetime ideological allies, conduct their relations through their ruling parties. But the two militaries, which fought together against the United States and South Korea during the Korean War, have their own close ties.

The question then becomes, which side will win the internal Chinese debate – the military or the civilian leadership? Should the military win the debate, tensions will certainly recede as neither the Chinese nor the Americans want direct conflict, or even proxy conflict, which is what would happen if the Chinese backed the North and the Americans backed the South. If the civilian leadership wins, the answer will be one of two things, either the North provides an unequivocal reversal of its aggression after being faced with the military of South Korea, China, and the United States combined, or it eliminates itself as a threat by initiating conflict and finding itself on the losing side.

It is true that from the historical perspective that American entanglement in the Korean Peninsula did not end as favorably as some would have hoped, but also remember that the Chinese were on the other side in the Korean war, and this time, they may not be.

China remains North Korea’s biggest trade partner and as such, has the most leverage. It should exploit this leverage to encourage a reduction in tensions, in accordance with the Chinese tradition of promoting regional stability as a platform for China’s regional power status. The U.S. should continue to pressure the Chinese join the push against North Korea’s aggression and continue to show open support for South Korea, continuing the American position of promoting democracy around the world and resisting aggressive moves by rouge states.

Whatever happens, North Korea needs to learn the lessons that it cannot be aggressive towards its neighbors without wandering into dangerous waters.

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