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May 25, 2010

Korean Peninsula Tensions Rise with Risk of a Second Korean War

BBC News reports that North Korea is to cut all relations with South Korea

The North was also expelling all South Korean workers from a jointly-run factory north of the border.

Amid the rising tensions, South Korea has said it will drop propaganda leaflets into the North to tell people about the Cheonan incident, as well as setting up giant electronic billboards to flash messages.

Christian Science Monitor reports that South Korean stocks continued to fall Tuesday on reports that North Korea was preparing for military action and had accused the South's Navy of trespassing.

Markets in South Korea and the region plunged, a reflection of how volatile the situation remains after a multinational probe last week squarely blamed North Korea for sinking a South Korean ship with a torpedo on March 26, killing 46.
"North Korea is holding massive rallies around the country to denounce South Korea and the United States," an article on the defectors' website said, according to the Korea Times. "All participants, even civilians, must wear military uniforms."

On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, vowing to prevent any repetition of North Korean “brutality,” suspended North-South trade and an agreement that gave North Korean vessels the right to go through South Korean waters around the southern end of the peninsula. Those measures, plus a diplomatic campaign to get the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions, raised the specter of a wide range of North Korean responses

The Korea Times reported Tuesday that Mr. Lee said North Korea would be designated the South's "main enemy" in a defense white paper, breaking with tradition of the last six years when Pyongyang was not singled out in the interest of reconciliation.


Xinua reports that South Korea will hold an anti- submarine drill this week in waters off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula.

It will be the first navy drill after Seoul government announced to take firm countermeasures on Monday in response to the recent sinking of its warship Cheonan by the Democratic People 's Republic of Korea (DPRK)'s alleged torpedo attack.

The drill, due on Thursday in waters off the county of Taean, about 150 km southwest of Seoul, will be participated by a total of 10 warships, including a 3,500-ton class destroyer and three patrol ships. It will also involve anti-submarine bombs and naval guns, according to Yonhap.

The South Korean government said on Monday it will hold military drills aimed at deterring further aggression of the DPRK, as part of a series of countermeasures to deal with the incident.

Seoul is planning to hold anti-submarine drills with the United States off the west coast of the Korean peninsula, the scene of the naval tragedy, and to hold military exercises aimed at deterring proliferation of Pyongyang's weapons of mass destruction, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said in a joint briefing.


All of the military and other stepped up activities can easily lead to more violent escalation and miscalculation. Risks are also higher because North Korea's Kim has always been unstable and there is a younger and more militant section in North Korea's military.

The UK Telegraph includes some discussion of the political situation inside North Korea

A new succession battle is now said to be taking place in Pyongyang amid a flurry of reports that the 69-year-old Kim Jong-il is suffering from bad health. In 2008 "the Great Leader", as he is known throughout the country, was reported to have suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and lost the use of some of his limbs. The country's reclusive dictator is said to have made a partial recovery, to the extent that earlier this month he made an official visit to China, where he is understood to have discussed North Korea's economic plight, as well as Chinese approval for his plans to hand power over to Kim Jong-un, his third and youngest son

Kim Jong-un has been described by North Korean defectors as being "just like his father", and has the same hard-line political outlook and explosive temper as his father. Like his father and grandfather before him, Kim Jong-un has now been given the official North Korean sobriquet "The Brilliant Comrade". But Kim Jong-il's plans for the succession have attracted opposition, not least from Chang Sung-taek, the dictator's brother-in-law, who harbours ambitions of his own to assume leadership.

In order to cement the younger Kim's power base and control of the army, it is possible that Pyongyang could have authorised a fresh round of attacks on South Korean targets, which resulted in the torpedo attack on the Cheonan.


China and US Angle

The Guardian UK talks about China role and interests in the situation.

The US, with 29,000 troops based in the South, may quickly be drawn into any new skirmishing. Barack Obama has directed the US military to be ready "to deter future aggression" and is demanding the North admit responsibility and apologise.

China faces a difficult choice. Too much pressure could be counterproductive. If the ailing Kim's political position is as weak as some analysts suggest, he could fall in an internal military coup or succession struggle. Or the regime may implode, sending a flood of refugees across the Chinese border. The ensuing chaos could bring American intervention in China's backyard and prospectively, a reunited, democratic, pro-western Korea – a displeasing prospect for Beijing.

On the other hand, if it stands back and Kim gets away with the Cheonan attack (which US intelligence believes he personally authorised), China's wish for acceptance as a responsible member of the international community will suffer. And so, too, may its own security and commercial interests, as the North continues to enhance its nuclear and other WMD capabilities and an emboldened Kim and his generals create more provocations.

Given the multifaceted, inter-dependent and often fractious nature of the US-China relationship, there is a limit to the amount of pressure Washington can apply. On the other hand, South Korea could and should push China to act, Cyr said. "Seoul's economic leverage is crucial. China's trade with South Korea now approaches approximately $200bn per year, compared to about $3bn with North Korea. South Korea's government should use this leverage to maximum advantage," he said.


Further Reading

A PBS Newshour debate about the Korean situation



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