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No better time to engage North Korea

By Graham Cooke - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2012

In the weeks since North Korea’s spectacular failure to launch a rocket – most believe it was really an intercontinental ballistic missile - into space, the Stalinist State has slipped from the headlines as Australians concern themselves with the Federal Budget and Americans consider the prospects of an Obama-Romney election campaign.

One place where it has not been forgotten is in Seoul. The South Korean capital situated just a hard day’s march from the Korean Demilitarised Zone, which forms an uneasy border between the two countries.

Analysts in the south say the security situation throughout the Korean Peninsula has grown increasingly tense since the launch fiasco with many predicting it is inevitable the nuclear-armed North will take some form of provocative action in order to recover lost prestige. They point to a series of verbal threats emanating from the northern capital of Pyongyang about turning southern targets to “ashes in three or four minutes”.


Ordinarily this kind of extravagant language would be passed over as just the latest in a long series of Northern posturing. However, the failed missile launch plus the fact that Kim Jong-un, the new and untested Northern leader, needs to consolidate his position, gives more gravity to the rhetoric.

This was emphasised by South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Kim Sung-hwan, in a recent address to the Korea Institute for Maritime Security, a private think tank. “Compared with the past, the level of North Korea’s verbal threats is very high and our government is becoming increasingly nervous,” Kim told the gathering.

So what form will any Northern demonstration take, and how best to meet it? In the past the North has favoured isolated and intense incidents. As far back as 1968 more than 100 North Korean troops landed in the south with the stated intention of conducting a guerilla war; most were either killed or captured.

In 2010 it fired around 200 artillery shells into the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two soldiers and doing widespread damage. Earlier in the same year, a South Korean naval vessel was sunk by a torpedo, which killed 46 sailors. Pyongyang’s denials of involvement met with worldwide skepticism.

The South’s retaliation follows the policy of what Associate Professor Dong Sun Lee describes as “deterrence by punishment”. As an example, after the Yeonpyeong incident Seoul ordered the shelling of the North. Casualties on that side were never revealed, but analysts said there had probably been “a considerable number”.

However, Lee, of the Korea University Department of Political Science and International Relations, says this is the wrong approach. “It is simply not effective against a risk-accepting adversary such as North Korea – the threat of severe punishment for attacks on warships and small islands is not credible when North Korea has the ability to counterstrike with potent conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction,” Lee said.


Writing in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, he said a slow and deliberate build up of South Korea’s military capability would be an effective demonstration of its determination not to be intimidated while giving Northern leaders plenty of time to think about the consequences of continued aggression.

“It is important to remember that only successful attacks can politically benefit North Korean politicians and generals; failure would damage their political interests. Therefore a robust ROK [Republic of Korea] capability to fend off DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] attacks or deny them victories would diminish North Korean aggressiveness.”

Calling this “deterrence by denial” Lee maintained it was the most effective way of using conventional arms to deter an aggressor.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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