The bloodcurdling threats against the South emanating from North Korea are all too familiar, but ironically the repeat performance only underlines the North’s weakness. A changing global landscape for the Koreas, especially weakening Chinese support for Pyongyang, is making the North Korean threat increasingly hollow.
On Aug. 20 North Korea declared a “quasi state of war” following the exchange of artillery shells across the misnamed Demilitarized Zone, once again raising the specter of conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Yet instead of waging war, Pyongyang, chastened perhaps by Chinese counsel for restraint, began talks with Seoul and agreed to call off its state of war and start dialogue with the South.
For more than half a century since the signing of the 1953 armistice agreement, the capitalist-based, democratic South has had to cope with an endless series of armed provocations from the aggressive, totalitarian system of the North. But the end of the Cold War in 1991 brought increasingly closer relations between US-backed South Korea and China and Russia allied with the north.
Today, North Korea confronts dramatically new international dynamics as it seeks to alter the status quo. The strong-arm tactics by Kim Jong Un, the 33-year-old hereditary leader who came to power in December 2011, to gain political concessions simply are not working.
The current crisis erupted August 8 when a landmine secretly placed by the North underneath the line dividing the two sides exploded, seriously wounding two South Korean patrol guards. Pyongyang’s refusal to take responsibility for this case of armistice violation prompted Seoul to respond with loudspeakers installed along the 225-km demarcation line, which had been silenced by agreement during the past 11 years. The loudspeakers blast news of the outside world, including human rights violations in the North, to North Korean troops on the other side of the line.
The news blasts, which prompt a few North Korean soldiers to defect each year, are powerful enough to reach North Korean civilians within 25 km. North Korean defectors in the South also occasionally launch balloons carrying propaganda leaflets across the line. Such psychological warfare has been a source of great irritation, undermining grassroots-level loyalty to the regime. Uncensored news about the outside world encourages civilians as well as those in uniform to defect.
Pyongyang Expresses “Regret”
Shortly after midnight Tuesday, North and South negotiators at Panmunjom agreed on a joint statement. The blasts caused so much concern for the North that the government expressed “regrets” over the landmine incident in exchange for the South’s promise to silence the loudspeakers.
The statement’s wording indicates that the South will resume the broadcasts if the North commits fresh provocations. The North also agreed to call off its declaration of the semi-state of war and restart the peace process including a reunion for families divided by the war that began in 1950.
South Korea has won this round of confrontation, but that doesn’t end its serious concern over the North’s use of hit-and-run guerrilla style attacks designed to wear down the South. Since signing of the armistice agreement in 1953, the North has committed some 2,000 cases of such provocations, half taking place along the armistice border. These include infiltration of individual saboteurs, group incursions, firing across the line, or planting of landmines inside the southern border.
One such provocation in 1976, the ax murder of two US Army officers inside the neutral area of Panmunjom, nearly triggered full-scale war. That incident so outraged the US Command that President Gerald Ford ordered B-52 bombers and the USS Midway to the Korea Peninsula in a move to punish the attack. In the face of a massive show of force, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung backed down and issued his first statement of apology.
His grandson, the North’s new leader, is focusing on the Yellow Sea zone, where he is probing to neutralize the US-imposed Northern Limit Line, which serves as an effective maritime border between the two sides. Two naval clashes flared there in 1999 and 2002, but the most spectacular attack occurred in 2010 when the North launched a submarine torpedo attack on the frigate Cheonan inside the South’s territorial waters, killing 45 seamen.