North Korea is again playing a game of high-stakes international “chicken” — now escalating tensions to new heights: it has announced that it’s freezing relations with its neighbor and nemesis to the south after being widely condemned for what many believe is its role in sinking a South Korean ship and it is warning that it’s now ready for war.
North Korea announced Tuesday a freeze in relations with South Korea and threatened military retaliation in response to alleged intrusions into its waters by the South Korean navy.
North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said it would “abrogate the agreement on non-aggression” amid heightened tensions on the divided peninsular over the sinking of a South Korean warship earlier this year.
An official South Korean report accused the Communist North of firing a torpedo at the ship, killing 46 sailors.
A North Korean military official accused the South of intruding into North Korean waters in the Yellow Sea from May 14 to 24, the Yonhap news agency reported.
“This is a deliberate provocation aimed to spark off another military conflict in the West Sea of Korea and thus push to a war phase the present north-south relations,” the official said in a statement, according to Yonhap.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged North Korea Monday to reveal what it knows about the “act of aggression” that sunk a South Korean warship.
She also said the United States’ “support for South Korea’s defense is unequivocal” and that North Korea should “stop its belligerence and threatening behavior.”
South Korea has said a probe concluded the North fired a torpedo that sunk a South Korean military ship in March. The United States supports that finding, Clinton said while in China.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced Monday that his country was suspending trade with North Korea, closing its waters to the North’s ships and adopting a newly-aggressive military posture toward its neighbor.
North Korea has warned it is ready for military action:
The Washington Post says there are apparent patterns in North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s behavior:
Because North Korea has perhaps the most secretive government in the world, there is no definitive explanation for its seemingly self-destructive actions. But there are revealing patterns in Kim’s behavior and how it is sold to his isolated people.
The North’s internal propaganda machine uses Kim’s defiance of the outside world to whip up nationalist fervor and to distract North Koreans from the increasingly grim circumstances of their daily lives.
“The Kim Jong Il regime has no source of mass support except public pride in military strength,” said B.R. Myers, director of the international studies department at Dongseo University in the South Korean city of Busan. “Acts of aggression are built into the North Korean system.”
After eight years of studying North Korea’s internal propaganda, Myers has found that confrontations with the outside world, especially when they involve the United States, are used to legitimize Kim’s dictatorial authority and explain away chronic poverty.
That might be happening again. Shortly after South Korea formally blamed the North last week for sinking the 1,200-ton Cheonan warship, Kim’s government told the Korean Peoples’ Army to get ready for combat, according to a dissident group in South Korea.
The message — delivered in a statement by O Kuk Ryol, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission — was broadcast over a cable radio network that is heard in households across North Korea, said the Web site of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a group run by defectors.
The broadcast was not confirmed by the South Korean government, but the Web site was among the first to report last year on North Korea’s bungled attempt to revalue its currency. South Korea’s currency and its stock market fell sharply on Tuesday after reports of the North Korean broadcast.
From an editorial in South Korea’s Joongang Daily:
President Lee Myung-bak spoke to the nation on the sinking of the Cheonan after it was found to be a deliberate military provocation by North Korea. The ministers of foreign affairs, defense and unification then described all possible follow-up options except military retaliation and closing the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Complex.
As President Lee said, we have tolerated North Korea’s provocations time after time because of our hope that we will be reunited one day. But “all this will change,” the president sternly declared. He warned that the country will invoke its right to defend itself if Pyongyang attempts further aggression.
He spoke of the principle of proactive deterrence. The paradigm in inter-Korean relations has changed. Relations may return to the long chill before the summit meeting between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il in June 2000. But such a drastic turn is nevertheless necessary to stop ourselves from being manipulated by the North.
To make North Korea pay the price for sinking our warship, the government has begun to deny access to our sea lanes, including the Jeju Strait, to North Korean merchant ships. It also resumed psychological warfare for the first time in six years. A “Voice of Freedom” broadcast has already aired, and propaganda loudspeakers and billboards will be turned on near the border soon. All remaining trade will be stopped.
Our grievances will also be taken to the United Nations Security Council…..
But South Koreans are divided on how to respond to North Korea as this BBC piece indicates.
Meanwhile, worries about North Korean — and a possible war there that could involve the United States — were among one of several factors negatively impacting the stock market, the Los Angeles Times reports:
Reporting from New York Stock markets plunged this morning, with fears about the European economy and a Korean military confrontation driving the Dow Jones industrial average below 9,900.
The Dow had fallen 2.2%, or 217.80 points, at midmorning, and other indexes fell even more sharply. The Nasdaq composite index was down 2.37%, or 52.56 points, to 2,160.99.
The rough opening came in the middle of a tumultuous day of trading in Europe and Asia.
There are now calls to put Korean back on the terror list, but Washington is resisting them, Foreign Policy’s The Cable blog reports:
Meanwhile, back in Washington, calls are heating up for the Obama administration to take punitive measures like putting North Korea back on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But the Obama administration is clearly signaling it does not intend to do that any time soon. The calculation is that the listing, which administration officals see as having been overly politicized by George W. Bush’s administration, is more trouble than it’s worth.
“With respect to … the state-sponsor of terrorism list, the United States will apply the law as the facts warrant,” Clinton said in Beijing Monday. “The legislation, as you know, sets out specific criteria for the Secretary of State to base a determination… If the evidence warrants, the Department of State will take action.”
What Clinton is saying here is that the original reasons that North Korea was put on the list, when they blew up half the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983 and then bombed Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, are not enough to justify putting Pyongyang back on the list today. Nor are the other reasons that the State Department has included in reports as recently as 2007 good enough for relisting now, namely that North Korea still hasn’t answered for 12 Japanese abductees and still harbors members of the Japanese Red Army.
In fact, that 2007 report evens says that “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.”
Whether you believe that or not, the sinking of the Cheonan falls outside that definition.
“I don’t see how you can call this a terrorist act,” said Michael Auslin, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “I think it’s an act of war but it’s not a terrorist act. Putting them back on there would just show that we really don’t have any other options. I think it was a mistake to take them off, but I don’t think this is how you put them back on.”
Leading Asia experts lament that the process was reduced to a political negotiation at the very end of the Bush administration, when then North Korea negotiator Chris Hill agree to delist Pyongyang in exchange for North Korean promises to keep alive the Six Party Talks on their nuclear program. Those promises have gone largely unfulfilled.
Read that post in its entirety.
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Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.