The Korean peninsula is on the boil again following North Korea’s nuclear test earlier this year and the month-long, unusually threatening U.S.-South Korean military exercises. By JOHN CHERIAN

EVER since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Korean peninsula has been a source of serious military tensions that have impacted on the international community. The war, which pitted North Korea, then backed by the Communist bloc, against South Korea, supported by the United States, ended in a stalemate, with the Korean nation remaining divided along the 38th parallel. The war, for that matter, is not even officially over as the U.S. has only agreed to an armistice, which is only a temporary agreement for the cessation of hostilities.

When the armistice agreement was signed, all the sides involved pledged that a peace treaty that would lead to a final, peaceful settlement and reunification of the divided country would soon follow. Successive U.S. administrations, however, have been consistently refusing to sign a peace treaty with North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The North has been demanding for the past 60 years an end to the U.S. military presence in South Korea and the annual joint military exercises the U.S. conducts on the Korean peninsula. The U.S. has anything between 25,000 and 40,000 troops on the peninsula. There are many other U.S. military bases near the Korean peninsula, bristling with nuclear weaponry.

This year, the month-long U.S.-South Korean military exercises have been more threatening than usual, with the Americans deploying nuclear-capable B-2 Stealth bombers near the border with the North. The scale of military exercises has dramatically increased since the death of Kim Jong-il and the assumption of the top post by his son. The exercises, code-named “Key Resolve Foal Eagle”, which started in late March, have come in the wake of the nuclear and missile tests conducted by the North. Before the joint exercises with South Korea, the U.S. conducted exercises with another of its close allies in the region, Japan. The new right-wing Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, is using the alleged threat from North Korea to officially give up Japan’s pacifist policies, which it adopted after its defeat in the Second World War. Using the recent developments as a pretext, there is increasing clamour in Tokyo and Seoul for building a national nuclear deterrent of their own.

South Korea had in fact started secretly preparing for a nuclear bomb in the early 1970s until it was arm-twisted by the U.S. into giving up the project. The South at the same time keeps its military budget relatively low in comparison with the strength of its buoyant economy. South Korea prefers to let the U.S. play the role of its protector, while focussing mainly on economic growth. South Korea’s economy is booming in comparison to that of the North, which now has to mainly depend on China for trade and aid.

The other long-standing demand of the DPRK was the holding of direct talks with the U.S. to defuse the tensions on the peninsula and hasten the goal of Korean unification. Washington has refused to countenance these demands though there were signs of a rethink during the last months of the Clinton administration. President Bill Clinton despatched his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to Pyongyang to kick-start talks with the North. Both sides seemed to be on the verge of starting a dialogue, but the change of guard in the White House in 2001 brought the situation to square one. After the events of 9/11, President George W. Bush put North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, in his “axis of evil”, thus readying the countries for “regime change”. Bush vowed to “squeeze North Korea with every financial sanction possible” until the economy collapsed. President Barack Obama is continuing with the same policies.

‘Sunshine policy’

But there was a silver lining as far as the North was concerned as the government in the South adhered to the “sunshine policy” that was ushered in by President Kim Dae-jung in 1998. President Kim, known as “Korea’s Mandela”, was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The sunshine policy encouraged political and economic engagement with the North, which since the 1990s had been on an economic downturn due to a variety of factors, including a cycle of droughts and floods. The collapse of the Soviet bloc, North Korea’s traditional trading partner, was also an important factor. The scrapping of the “sunshine policy” in 2008 after the right-wing leader Lee Myung-bak came to power significantly contributed to the growing military tensions in the region.

In the elections this year, another right-wing candidate, Park Geun-hye, narrowly won the presidency against a candidate who wanted to restart “the sunshine policy”. The new President is the daughter of the long-serving South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee. During his term in office from 1963-71, Gen. Park stood out for his hard-line polices towards the North and his crackdown on civil liberties internally. He is, however, credited with being the architect of the South Korean economic miracle.

The current escalation of hostilities in the peninsula coincided with the swearing-in of Obama for a second term as President and the inauguration of the new South Korean President. There were warning signs that things were once again heating up on the peninsula after North Korea went ahead with its successful satellite launch late last year and followed it up with a nuclear test earlier this year. In all, North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests after walking out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003. The first two tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009. The latest one happened after the United Nations Security Council imposed even more draconian sanctions last December on an already beleaguered North to punish it for its satellite launch. The West succeeded in characterising the launch as a disguised “long-range missile test”.

Pyongyang said that a different yardstick was being applied to it as other nations were allowed to freely launch satellites into space “for peaceful scientific missions”. The North Korean satellite was only one among the 75 satellites launched by various nations, including India, last year. India and Pakistan tested nuclear-capable ballistic missiles around the same time the North Koreans successfully launched their satellite into space. South Korea placed its own satellite in space with the help of the U.S. in January this year.

The North Korean government had then said that the February nuclear test was in response to “the reckless hostility of the United States”. It had warned at the time that it would be left with no option but to take stronger steps if the U.S. “further complicates the situation with continued hostility”. An article in the U.S. journal Foreign Policy in Focus by Christine Hong and Hyun Le in February notes that it is convenient for the U.S. to characterise North Korea as “the foremost security threat in the region”. The authors argue that it fits in with Obama’s policy in the region—that “of strategic patience” on the one hand and alliance with regional hawks on the other. James Hardy, an editor with Jane’s Defense Weekly, wrote that the Obama administration might be using the crisis to further bolster the missile build-up in the region in step with Washington’s military “pivot” towards the Asia Pacific.

The new leadership in the North, led by the young Kim Jong-un, apparently feels that the only avenue open to bring the West to the negotiating table is by increasing its belligerent rhetoric. Stratfor, a news network having close links with the American intelligence community, observed: “Much of North Korea’s behaviour can be considered rhetorical, but it is still unclear how far Pyongyang is willing to go if it is still cannot force negotiations through belligerence.”

In the first week of April, North Korea warned that it had issued clearance for the use of “smarter, lighter and diversified” nuclear weapons in case of an attack on its territory. Before that, Pyongyang had announced that it would be restarting its plutonium reactor at Nyongbyon. The reactor was voluntarily shut down in 2007 after the U.S. and South Korea promised to supply electricity and build two new reactors under international safeguards. The promises were never kept. The central committee of the ruling Workers Party recently announced that North Korea’s nuclear weapons were “a treasure” that would not be bartered away for “billions of dollars”. The U.S. has been demanding that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons as a precondition for talks.

The Obama administration knows fully well that there is little likelihood that the North will exceed its rhetoric, but is taking no chances. All the same it is becoming clear that Washington wants to take some time off from the ongoing exercise in sabre-rattling.

The Cuban leader Fidel Castro, in his “Reflections” published in early April, provided some friendly advice to the North Korean leadership. He said the crisis enveloping the Korean peninsula was the most serious one since the Cuban nuclear crisis of 1962, which almost unleashed a holocaust. “Now that the country [North Korea] has demonstrated its technical and scientific achievements, we remind her of her duties to the countries that have been her good friends, and it would be unjust to forget that such a war would particularly affect more than 70 per cent of the planet,” cautioned Castro. The Cuban leader also had words of advice for the U.S. President about the dangers of playing nuclear roulette. “If a conflict of that nature should break out there, the government of Barack Obama in his second mandate would be buried in a deluge of images which would present him as the most sinister character in the history of the United States. The duty of avoiding war is also his and that of the people of the United States,” he wrote.

In a significant move, the U.S. announced on April 7 that it was postponing the testing of a Minuteman 111 Intercontinental Missile. The missile was scheduled to be launched in the second week of April from a military base in California. The decision came shortly after the North Korean government said that it had moved two medium-range missiles to a location on the country’s east coast. An unnamed U.S. official told the media that the postponement of the test was done to “avoid any misperception or miscalculation”. The official said that it was a “logical, prudent and responsible action to take” while insisting that the proposed long-range missile test was unconnected to the escalating crisis on the Korean peninsula. Senior U.S. officials have told the American media that the Obama administration, while trying to maintain military pressure on Pyongyang, is also trying to create a more advantageous scenario for talks to end the current crisis.

In early April, the North Korean government told foreign diplomats stationed in its capital that it could not guarantee their safety until such time as the U.S.-South Korean military exercises continued. The exercise will go on for most of April. Pyongyang fears that the military exercises are a prelude to a full-scale military attack. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Pentagon’s Pacific Command had approved a detailed plan to ratchet up tensions with the North during the war games conducted with the South Korean Army. The U.S.’ Stealth and B-52 bombers made “mock bombing raids” in broad daylight near the border with the North. Experts have described this kind of a military exercise as “sub critical warfare”. Much of the North was carpet-bombed by the U.S. during the Korean War.

In the last week of March, Pyongyang cut its military hotline with Seoul, which it had maintained to keep abreast of military movements of their respective armies along the border. Before that, it had renounced the 1953 armistice agreement and declared that it was in a “state of war” with the South. In the first week of April, the North closed its doors to South Korean workers employed in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, run by Korean conglomerates inside the North. The crisis has already started taking a toll on South Korea’s economy. Its capital, Seoul, is only 50 km from the demilitarised zone dividing the two countries and would be devastated in case of an armed conflict. South Korea and the U.S. have now reached a new agreement whereby the U.S. will have operational control of the South Korean army if war breaks out.

After the invasion of Iraq and of Libya, the North Koreans may be justified in thinking that they are next on the American hit list. At this juncture, the North Korean leadership must be feeling more isolated than ever. China, its strongest ally, voted with the U.S. to impose additional sanctions on North Korea after the satellite launch last year. China has, however, been consistently advocating the resumption of the six-party talks that were last held in 2008 and has voiced its disagreement on additional sanctions being imposed on the country.

On April 6, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Beijing was opposed to “provocative words and actions” from any party and that “it would not allow trouble-making on its doorstep”. He stressed that the only way to resolve the situation was through dialogue. The Obama administration is so far holding out against the resumption of the dialogue process. Senior U.S. officials keep saying that “bad behaviour” should not be rewarded.