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Searching for an end game in the Korean crisis

By Murray Hunter - posted Monday, 29 April 2013


Over the last month the media has led the world to believe that North Korea, the United States and South Korea are standing 'eye ball to eye ball' on the brink of war.

Secretary Kerry's comments after meeting with his Chinese opposites State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Yang Yi, and later President Xi Jinping, and Premier Li Keqiang were guarded. However upon arrival in Tokyo Kerry reiterated his call to North Korea to denounce nuclear weapons before six party talks could be resumed. It looked like Secretary Kerry had fired the last shot in anger. Then for a few days with the Boston Marathon bombing, not a story could be found about this tense situation, as if it had just gone away.

Since the Boston saga, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey declared that the Foal Eagle joint military exercises with South Korea will continue indefinitely. The extension of these exercises gives North Korea 'little room to move".

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Then the Chinese Chief of Staff General Fang Fenghui warned General Dempsey on his visit to Beijing on April 22nd that there would be another North Korean nuclear test sometime in the future. The media reported the movement of short range missile launchers to where the North already has musudan medium range missiles already deployed on the East Coast, where some commentators hint of a missile firing on April 25th to commemorate the anniversary of the formation of the armed forces. All the rhetoric and movements of hardware is part of the continuing "cycle of tension" the Korean Peninsula has been used to over the last 60 years.

To see how any possible "endgame" could occur, perhaps it would be a good idea to briefly examine each party's views and interests in this situation.

From the South Korean perspective, the threats from the North are seen as similar to the ranting of an immature child seeking attention. These outbursts are most often harmless, but if challenged incorrectly could lead to incidents. Consequently there is some unpredictability in this uneasy relationship. The closure of the Kaesong Industrial Zone probably has more to do with a sense of grief felt by the North over the South's strong rhetoric and participation in what the it sees as overzealous acts in the Foal Eagle joint military exercises with the United States. This is almost a separate issue to the tensions between the North and United States, as Kaesong represents a symbolic connection between the North and South. Most people in the South are putting up with these "tantrums" and going about with their everyday lives, which can be seen on the streets of Seoul. Although South Korean President Park Geun-hye's mother was assassinated by a North Korean agent, there are indications that she will take a strong line with the North. However President Park will most likely follow US counsel, indicated by the arrangements being made for her to address the US Congress upon her visit to Washington next month.

Japan has had enough and most probably seeks a continuation of the status quo within the peninsula and would be skeptical of any possible solution. The detection of radioactive fallout from a North Korean nuclear test last February is testing Tokyo's patience. However continued tensions may put pressure on Japan to take a more active military role in the region, which it does not want to do. Given Japan's history, there is a strong preference for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and consequently Japan supports the six party talks process.

China is a major stakeholder in the region and Korea is a complex issue. North Korea is an ally of China, although philosophically and economically they may have drifted apart. However North Korea acts as a buffer between China and US forces, and for this reason China is relatively happy with the status quo. Any change in the status of North Korea, such as an economic collapse would force China's hand in needing to physically occupy the North or accept the absorption of the North into South Korea, which could mean US troops right on the Chinese border. With Obama's "Asian Pivot" looking more like a strategic competition doctrine with China, this would be a paramount concern.

Any change in the status quo would throw open the present balance of power which would have to redefined through strategic competition with the US, and would be drawn out and costly. China may not be ready for this challenge.

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General Fang Fenghui said a few days ago, North Korea possessing nuclear weapons would not be in China's interests either. In the long term this would become an inconvenient problem for China just as much as the US.

The most difficult scenario for China to contend with would be a thawing in relations between the US and the North. This would potentially weaken Chinese influence with North Korea, and be seen as a form of US encirclement.

This crisis is testing China's new leadership and the China-US relationship. The current crisis is preventing any breakthrough in finding new ways to define and manage this relationship.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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