Tensions are likely to rise even more in 2011 between North and South Korea with South Korea’s declaration that is is preparing for unification with the North. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Wednesday it would shift focus next year from pursuing inter-Korean talks to preparing for unification with North Korea.

That announcement is likely to raise the ire of the North and its ally China. It comes as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said that the South must resolve the problem of the North’s nuclear program through six-party talks, even while stressing the importance of military readiness.

Tensions have been high on the Korean peninsula. The North shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong Island last month, killing four people, including two civilians. Before that, the South accused the North of torpedoing a warship in March, killing 46 sailors. The South’s military drills in recent weeks have provoked increasingly strong rhetoric from the North, which is in the process of a power change.

The Unification Ministry’s new strategy came in a policy report for 2011 delivered to the president. The Financial Times reports that Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said the South would work to improve conditions for ordinary North Koreans as it prepares for reunification. The two Koreas have technically been in a state of war since the two sides signed an armistice in 1953.

The Washington Post sees a notable shift in South Korea’s approach:

The latest provocations from North Korea and the resulting rightward swing in South Korean public opinion have transformed South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s strategy for dealing with the peninsula’s troublemaker. The old method: Act with caution. The new method: Get tough.

Lee’s shift in thinking has prompted modest but growing concern in the Obama administration, where officials say they worry that an overly aggressive South Korea could become a liability in its own right.

Political analysts here and in Washington predict that Lee will soon face pressure from the United States to reengage diplomatically with the North. But Lee has turned increasingly hawkish in recent weeks after taking criticism for Seoul’s weak initial counterattack to Pyongyang’s Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

“Fear of war is never helpful in preventing war,” Lee said Monday in a radio address. “If we are firmly determined to brave any risks, we can fend off any emerging threats.”

Policymakers here have long debated the best North Korea policy, finding downsides to every solution. Lee faces domestic pressure to remain firm and international pressure to reduce tension on the peninsula. Of late, Lee has given priority to the first of those demands. But with two years left in his term, how he meets what one Western diplomat called the legacy-defining challenge of “putting North Korea back into the box” will shape security in South Korea, where the United States stations 28,500 troops.

The National Post’s Matt Gurney notices the shift as well and applauds it:

South Korea has negotiated in good faith with the North for decades, with the full support and participation of the international community. It has provided food and fuel to the North in the hopes of improving relations. In return, the North has exported missile components around the world, test fired missiles over Japan, built and test-detonated nuclear warheads, launched sneak attacks on South Korean warships and shelled civilian villages — and yet still reacts with outrage if criticized. Last week, the South finally responded appropriately, just as we once would have. They staged a large military exercise, publicly, and showed the world the impotence of the North. They’ve promised more exercises in the weeks ahead.

Good for them. They understand the importance of deterrence and know that a measured military response speaks louder than more fruitless diplomacy. We in the West knew that once, too. Perhaps it’s time we looked to our own history for a reminder.

The Korea Times notes that China has called the reunification plan provocative:

China criticized Seoul’s plan to prepare for the reunification of the Koreas, Wednesday, saying in an editorial the move ratchets up regional tension.

The editorial published in the Global Times, a sister paper of the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, came as the Unification Ministry announced it would begin preparations for reunification during the coming year.

“Closely watching dynamics on the peninsula, we are able to see that South Korea’s declarations about its reunification plan have created more tensions in the region,” it said.

“This plan, which is proposed by the South while it carries out a military drill and includes a strategy which sets preparations in motion for the collapse of the North Korean regime, will hardly enhance ties between the two sides.”

The remarks came in response to media reports that quoted South Korean officials as saying the ministry would shift its focus from inter-Korean exchanges to bolstering its capability to handle reunification.

But in a policy briefing Wednesday, the ministry announced it would also push for more dialogue and warm ties with the North, prospects the editorial did not address.

Relations have deteriorated to their worst point in decades following the North’s deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last month. Pyongyang waged the attack in response to live-firing drills the South says were routine.

The commentary said the South’s recent military drills aimed at detering further attacks, as well as its reunification planning, are pushing peace out of reach.

Tensions between the two Koreans will remain a big story — and danger — in 2011.

JOE GANDELMAN, Editor-In-Chief
Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2010 The Moderate Voice