WASHINGTON–North Korea, one of former President George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil countries, is angrier than ever. Its southern neighbor, South Korea, is a conservative and staunch ally of the United States. China, its biggest supporter, is also telling it to tone down its belligerent ways; and the domestic economy, or what’s left of it, continues to worsen.
The latest incident that pushed Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s button is a joint military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea near the tense maritime border.
Prior to the drill, Pyongyang vowed to meet the exercise with “strong physical retaliation.” On August 15, a day before the latest round of exercises began, a North Korean military official upped the threat further, saying the military will counter the joint exercises with the “severest punishment” .
Many observers of North Korea’s decades of saber-rattling were not impressed.
“The joke is that North Korea threatened R.O.K. [the South] and U.S. as usual: ‘We will not hesitate to use whatever powers we have’,” said Kongdan Oh, a senior fellow with Brookings Institution, who covers Northeast Asian politics. “Let’s not overblow their usual verbal threats.”
The reclusive regime has not acted on its latest threat as of mid-August.
The military exercise comes after the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel on a routine exercise in the Yellow Sea, was sunk, killing46 sailors. Seoul blamed it on a North Korean submarine’s torpedo; and displayed remains of what appears to be a North Korean weapon dredged up from the shattered vessel.
North Korea has denied the accusation, and China and Russia have supported it. The two members of the U.N. Security Council helped tamp down the international outrage. On July 9, the U.N. agency released a presidential statement condemning the attack on the Cheonan but didn’t identify the attacker.
South Korea’s defense ministry said it will release the full results of its investigation into who sank the Cheonan—an act of war in international circles– in an effort to address concerns that it is afraid to publicly point the finger at the most likely culprit—North Korea.
According to the South Korean military, the new document is likely to have the same conclusion as the preliminary report released on May 20, but will contain more insights from 74 military and civilian investigators from around the globe.
Like Oh, many believe the latest verbal threat from Pyongyang is an empty promise; one that the communist regime cannot executive amidst growing pressure from China to stop jeopardizing its own future.
“The key to the North Korean problem is Beijing,” said Guy Sorman, the global advisor for French President Nicolas Sarkozy and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. In an opinion column of The Korea Times, Sorman recommends South Korea’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea focus on China, because “everything will be decided in Beijing.”
According to Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Beijing claims that Washington has benefited from the escalating geopolitical tension on the Korean peninsula.
“The Chinese say that as a result of the [Cheonan] incident, the U.S.-South Korea alliance is stronger, the transfer of operational control was delayed and Japan made a decision to keep the U.S. bases,” said Glaser.
According to Pentagon, the U.S. and South Korea are planning to stage war games in the Yellow Sea, off the west coast of the Korean peninsula. Beijing also has repeatedly voiced strong opposition to any drills in that area.
Despite threats of unprecedented retaliation from North Korea and strong opposition from China, or perhaps because of them, the dynamics of U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia remains strong.
During an interview with a Hong Kong television network early July, Chinese Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan was quoted saying “If a U.S. aircraft carrier enters the Yellow Sea, it will become a moving target” for the Chinese military.
In fact, Washington’s military coordination between its two strongest allies in the region, i.e. South Korea and Japan, have strengthened, some experts say
John Feffer, Co-Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, said the important step now is not to worry about North Korea’s physical avenge but to find a way for the Hermit Kingdom to extricate itself from the situation. “Obviously, this was not something North Korea wanted to own up to, if in fact it did do it.”
At the same time, experts agree that once Pyongyang makes an exit from this particular incident, members to the six party talks should engage in a dialogue to reduce tensions on the divided peninsula.