The most recent dramatic escalation of military and political tensions on the Korean peninsula in August 2015 can be viewed from various perspectives, but what stands out is the fact that despite Seoul’s continual declarations of their desire to build trust between the North and the South, not only economic cooperation, but even meaningful dialog has ground to an almost complete halt.
Without attempts to pursue substantive bilateral negotiations, the rhetorical question about whether it is possible to boost trust between the two Koreas has long gone unanswered. The dramatic, but unfortunately quite logical response was the onset of yet another artillery duel across the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
The timeline of the events has been established. On Aug. 4 there was an explosion in the DMZ (this four-kilometer-wide strip of land is literally filled with mines and other ordnance) during a South Korean patrol, seriously injuring two soldiers. In response, Seoul switched on its powerful loudspeaker system that is set up along the line of demarcation and which had sat silent for 11 years prior to this episode, resuming its barrage of propaganda against the North. After the Northerners made repeated requests that these attempts at sabotage be stopped, Pyongyang blasted the speakers with two volleys of artillery shells. South Korean guns returned fire.
The government of the Republic of Korea announced that the radio broadcasts would continue until the DPRK admitted that it had deliberately set the land mine and had issued a formal apology. As usual, neither Seoul nor Washington took into account the fact that there has been no investigation of the incident and that the mine that exploded was of a type that dated back to the Korean War of the 1950’s.
And so preparations for large-scale military operations rapidly swung into high gear. Threatening statements from both sides followed, martial law was introduced in North Korea, and troops began to advance toward the zones of their combat deployment. Discussions began in South Korea about bringing in and stationing American strategic B-52 bombers, submarines armed with nuclear missiles, and so forth.
However, once tensions reached a truly alarming level, both sides still had enough sense to agree to hastily convened negotiations, such as had not been held for a very long time. After a 43-hour negotiating marathon in the border village of Panmunjom, an agreement was reached on Aug. 25. A six-point accord was signed. Pyongyang expressed its regret (the idea of expressing an «apology» was rejected) over the injuries to the South Korean soldiers; Seoul shut off its radio broadcasts; the two parties worked out methods to reduce military tensions and withdraw their troops; and they agreed to continue these talks at a high level and to review the possibility of resuming economic ties. The agreement to allow a September visit between members of families who had been separated by the political division was an important and emotionally meaningful success.
Journalists had plenty to say about this wild drama. They hashed over everything – from the temerity and inexperience of the young leader of North Korea and the obstinacy of the Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, who again decided to play chicken with one another, to the Americans’ ambitious plans to encourage military tensions on the Russian and Chinese borders; and from the attempts to disrupt the widespread celebrations in Beijing on Sept. 3 to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, to the desire to contain China’s «peaceful rise», which includes not allowing the yuan to become a reserve currency.
Some of these pronouncements seem silly, while others are perhaps worth a second thought. But none of them throw light on the primary cause behind the dustup. This crisis was unavoidable. It did not break out spontaneously, but during the massive, scheduled Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, staged by the US and South Korean militaries, in which 50,000 South Korean and 30,000 American troops take part. In addition to these drills, ten other nations that had a role in the Korean War of the 1950’s also sent representatives. It’s hard to say what preoccupied the North Koreans most – the deployment of a formidable military division on their borders, with the clear allusion to Korea’s wartime past, or Washington and Seoul’s repeated mantra that shrilly proclaimed the «routine» and «defensive» nature of the maneuvers.
In any case, Pyongyang could not overlook these exercises. North Korea interpreted them within the context of the Allies’ anti-North Korean policy, which openly states their highest priority – regime change in the DPRK and its incorporation into South Korea. This is why they have stubbornly resisted any meaningful dialog with Pyongyang in recent years, gambling on its isolation and applying pressure by resorting to such forms of duress as their ambitious campaign against human-rights violations in North Korea.
Herein lies the main reason why the guns spoke once again from both sides of the DMZ. It’s worth mentioning, that almost every dramatic event in recent years, including the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in 2010, occurred during the climax of the US-South Korean military maneuvers, which are conducted very close to the North Korean border.
It seems promising, that common sense prevailed at the last minute in the capitals of the two Korean states and the conflict was reined in, but one is left with the nagging suspicion that not everyone involved in these all-too-frequent events has learned a good lesson. And there’s a good chance of a new flare-up of tensions on the Korean peninsula.