Rising Tensions in the Korean Peninsula

Ever since the sinking of a South Korean warship earlier this year, tensions on the Korean peninsula have been steadily escalating. The culmination of this newfound North Korean aggression was the November shelling of South Korean territory which resulted in the deaths of four South Koreans . Why is North Korea showing such aggression at this time? The general concensus among policy makers is that the North Korean government is posturing in order to ensure an easy transition of power from the increasingly sickly Kim Jong Il to his third son, Kim Jong Un, and parlay military belligerence into better humanitarian aid deals. With these goals apparently accomplished, the peninsula seemed to be moving towards a return to peace. However, this past Thursday, North Korea renewed apprehension by spewing vicious rhetoric of launching a “sacred war” against South Korea while South Korea’s president Lee Myung-bak has promised a “merciless counterattack” in the wake of more provocation. Although both sides may be posturing at this stage, inflammatory rhetoric is not encouraging to any nations wishing for an easing of tensions.
As I argued in a previous post, any plan involving North Korea must take into consideration China’s interests and motives. This is not only because China is a preeminent economic and political powerhouse in the region but also because China is North Korea’s last substantial remaining ally. During the more than 60 years since waves of Chinese soldiers crossed the Yalu River and pushed the Americans to the 38th parallel, China has remained a steadfast ally to North Korea. This is in spite of the fact that North Korea has become an increasing large diplomatic and political liability to a Chinese state that seeks to reinvent itself as a modern, global leader that takes a more active position in global diplomacy. While China’s condemnation of certain North Korean actions, such as the stubborn North Korean pursuit of nuclear weapons, is in line with the aims of the U.S., the U.S. should by no means take this agreement to mean that the goals of the two countries are aligned on Korea. This is because although China does not want a powerful, nuclear-armed North Korea, it wants to be neighbors with a strong pro-U.S. nation even less.
So what exactly are the aims of China in relation to Korea?
In excellent article published in November, CNN explains that China does not want to see a U.S. –style democracy in North Korea as the nation does not view the Korean situation as something hinging on economics or even politics. Instead, the issue is one of “geopolitics.” The U.S. is, undoubtedly, China’s largest global as well as regional rival, and viewing China’s political standpoint from this perspective, the U.S. has seemingly encircled China with a “range of moves and alliances—with Afghanistan, India, the ASEAN regional forum, South Korea, and Japan.” In such a scenario, it is easy to see why China likes to have a friendly nation on its doorstep.
So what recourse can be offered in this situation? What actions the U.S. should take is very hard to answer. Short of invading North Korea and forcing it to disarm, there is very little that the U.S. can actually accomplish. It has no economic relationship or even diplomatic relationship with North Korea that it can use as a carrot stick for good behavior. Even if the U.S. and its allies were willing to allow the vast majority of North Koreans to starve by withholding humanitarian aid, China would definitely step in and prop up the regime. Strong rhetoric and condemnation from the U.S. camp means less than nothing to North Korea. Although it is hard to advocate a policy of not actively confronting and seeking to address North Korea, the only thing that the U.S. can do is to continue to confront China over the issue of North Korea and wait for the insular nation to drive away its remaining ally. The relationship between North Korea and China is not as good as many think. China has recently offered sanctuary to a group of anti-Kim Il Sung North Koreans who fled in the 1960s and the nation has also grown especially close to South Korea as South Korea’s largest trade partner. However, despite this mutually beneficial relationship between China and South Korea, China still seems unwilling to take a hard line with North Korea, and its primary goals seem to be to maintain the status quo. With North Korea and Kim Jong Il’s regime becoming increasingly ambitious, it is only a matter of time before this relationship is tested.

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