RENEWED tension on the Korean Peninsula initiated by the irascible North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is again stoking fears of a possible military confrontation in the area. Happening against the backdrop of the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine, and China’s menacing moves on Taiwan, every effort must be made to stop this provocation from snowballing into a resumption of the paused Korean War, or igniting a global conflagration.
Residents awoke to the potential reality of another war when North Korea fired four short-range ballistic missiles into the Western Sea on November 5. This was in response to the high-profile six-day military exercise tagged, ‘Vigilant Storm’ carried out by the United States and South Korean military forces.
Kim also launched a series of missiles, including a possible failed intercontinental ballistic missile, drawing condemnation from the US, South Korea and Japan, and raising speculation it could be readying for the resumption of nuclear testing for the first time since 2017. It fired a record 23 missiles daily; one landed off South Korea’s coast for the first time, after Pyongyang threatened to take “powerful and merciless measures” unless the allies halted the military exercises.
Washington called for a United Nations Security Council meeting, where it accused Russia and China of providing “blanket protection” to North Korea from further sanctions. Defiantly, North Korean warned that “sustained provocation is bound to be followed by sustained counter-action.’’
Brazenly, North Korea also fired a ballistic missile over Japan, a deliberate escalation to get the attention of Tokyo and Washington. The missile travelled 4,500km before falling into the Pacific Ocean – far enough to hit the US island of Guam if it took another trajectory. It was the North’s first missile launch over Japan since 2017.
In recent years, the UNSC has been split on how to deal with North Korea’s provocations. In May, China and Russia (as usual) vetoed a US attempt to impose additional UN sanctions in response to Kim’s missile launches. Condemnably, Pyongyang has continued to contravene a UN resolution prohibiting it from testing ballistic and nuclear weapons towards, or over other countries. Kim has become a major threat to world peace. The world should find ways to stop him.
This year, North Korea’s missile provocations have been more frequent. One of the missiles prompted evacuations in Japan’s Miyagi, Yamagata and Niigata prefectures. “North Korea’s repeated missile launches are an outrage and absolutely cannot be forgiven,” Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, said.
North Korea’s launch of 23 missiles was “effectively a territorial invasion,” South Korean President, Yoon Suk-yeol, declared. It was the highest number of missiles fired by the North in a single day. South Korea responded by launching three ground-to-air missiles of its own.
One North Korean missile crossed the maritime border between the two countries, landing just 57km off the South’s Korea east coast, triggering air raid sirens on the island of Ulleung and forcing people into shelters.
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Effectively, Kim’s missiles put paid to hopes that recent rapprochement between the North and South would lead to the end of the existing armistice, and hopefully, facilitate a peace treaty. Technically, both countries are still at war though hostilities were paused with the 1953 armistice. Warming to the South’s overtures, Pyongyang had dispatched a contingent to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. The then President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, also led his North Korean counterpart across the border to the South, a gesture that was swiftly reciprocated by Kim. This was hailed globally as he was the first North Korean leader to cross the 38th Parallel and set foot on the southern end of the peninsula since the Korean War (1950-53).
Unfortunately, the peace building appears to have crumbled as North Korea reverts to its belligerent and reclusive instincts.
Despite the burden of international economic sanctions that have impoverished its citizens, North Korea’s leaders have an obsession for weapons of mass destruction. This stands in stark contrast to the democratic South in terms of technological advancement and economic prosperity. The hermit country relies heavily on China and Russia, its two principal backers and trade partners, who are also veto-wielding members of the UNSC, to survive.
The North’s threat to use nuclear weapons is a constant decimal on the peninsula. Past efforts to ensure the denuclearisation of North Korea, including a series of multilateral talks, came to nought. Participants in the talks comprised China, Russia, the US, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.
North Korea’s ambition is to reach strategic parity with the US by creating a credible nuclear deterrent and compelling opponents to conclude a peace treaty, recognise its sovereignty, and provide it with security guarantees to enable the country’s economic development. The US’ priority is to achieve the total denuclearisation of the regime.
Even without nuclear weapons the Korean War was costly: under a UN mandate, more than 40 countries led by the US fought on the side of South Korea; about two million Koreans, 600,000 Chinese (fighting on the North’s side), 37,000 Americans, and 3,000 nationals of the allied countries perished. Apart from the destruction of infrastructure and the economies of the two Koreas, the International Journal of Korean Studies estimated the war damage at $6.9 billion or 83 per cent of their joint GDP. A new war today would be more devastating.
Taking into account the security interests of both parties, an ideal peaceful resolution will denuclearise the peninsula and facilitate a peace treaty.
An agreement by Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme must be accompanied with credible security assurances that it will not attack, or be attacked or otherwise destabilised. Verified cessation of North Korean threats and conventional military preparations against the South; the removal of economic sanctions against North Korea and agreement on each nation’s territorial integrity will also help restore peace to the region.
Of prime importance also is persuading China and Russia to end their brinksmanship and elevate international peace and denuclearisation aspirations above super-power maneuvering. ,
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