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Sinking hopes in the Korean peninsula

By Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)
June 14, 2010 19:09 IST
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As it stands now, the ChonAn incident will perhaps come to pass without a major fallout. However, as and when young Kim Jong Un ascends to power in North Korea a period of greater assertiveness may be anticipated in the North's nuclear agenda, writes Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd). 

The ChonAn, a South Korean Navy's corvette, essentially a small warship, was sunk, apparently, by a North Korean torpedo attack in the Yellow Sea,10 miles off the North Korean coast, where South Korea retains two islands. Stock markets, globally, would have hit the bottom of the sea had the ChonAn's sinking led to a large scale confrontation across the 38th parallel between the Koreans.

The South Koreans have refrained from an equitable response to losing 48 of their sailors in the high seas. Surely, if instead of South Korea, another US ally, Israel would have faced a similar attack, the casualties on boarding the Turkish flagged relief ship Mavi Marmara, nine dead, would have been lost in the smoke emanating from the preponderant use of gunpowder.

To understand the rather circumspect response to a volatile provocation, it is essential to retrace the precipitate situations that the two nations have orchestrated for each other in the past.

The most famous incident was the attack on South Korean Presidential Palace in January 1968. 32 North Koreans were ultimately gunned down or captured barely 800 meters short of President Park Chung-hee's palace. Park remained on North Korea's crosshairs, though; till an agent missed him only to shoot his wife dead in 1974.

In 1984, four South Korean ministers were killed in Burma the day prior to the scheduled arrival of the South Korean president. In November, 1987, a South Korean plane with 115 people on board blew up.

The North Koreans landed 24 men on South's coast in 1999. The battle that ensued resulted in 22 of them being killed, with 11 killing themselves rather than surrendering.

Thereafter, the arena of operations has been limited mostly to the Yellow Sea, with the North Koreans losing a boat in 1999, followed by the South in 2002. Finally in November 2009, both navies exchanged fire, with North reportedly withdrawing to douse the blaze on one of its ships.

South's approach to repeated rogue action by the North, though the Russians dispute the findings of the South Korean led multinational inquiry into the ChonAn incident, has been more benign, in consonance with its stance in front of the international community of its commitment to peace and stability. There were differences too in South Korea between the government's statements and the opposition's assessments of the incident.

Post the sinking of ChonAn, North managed to rally a lakh men to demonstrate national solidarity against South Korea's smear campaign. "War may break out any moment," was the shrill message that Choe Yong Rim, Chief Secretary, Pyongyang City Committee, Workers' Party of Korea chose to proclaim from the dais.

The southern leadership contrarily, lost the local elections. However, the incident led President Myung-bak Lee to stall the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) over South Korean troops from the United States. Lee's remarks were candid, "The OPCON should be transferred to us someday when we are capable of commanding a war independently." The transfer was scheduled for April 17, 2012.

Though exchanges between the two Koreas are not unusual, resorting to the use of a torpedo makes the situation a lot grimmer. When viewed in the context of a likely change of guard in Pyangong, with the ailing North Korean dictator Kim wanting to hand over the reins to his youngest son in his twenties, the question arises whether a more youthful North Korean leadership would be inclined to increase confrontation between the Koreas.

Most North Korean watchers are of the view that President Kim would not have permitted a torpedo attack, and would have preferred a less provocative act, just about enough to create conditions for a renewed solidarity call to the nation and the army.

The other possibility is that senior admirals of the navy ordered the attack to avenge the November, 2009 loss. The contention is that Kim was not in picture about the attack; by itself a reflection of his weakening hold. Interestingly, recent changes in the top echelons brought Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law as vice chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission, a move that further consolidates the family's hold.  Further, 80-year-old Choe Yong Rim replaced Kim Yong Il as Premier of the North Korean Cabinet.

Another hypothesis points at Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Un ordering the attack to establish himself for the potential leadership role. If this be true, we are possibly going to witness worsening of the situation along the Korean borders and the Yellow Sea. The chances of Koreans returning to the talks with the group of six that include USA, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea are also remote. The Koreans have expressed willingness to get back to the talks, should the US decide to negotiate directly with them. Notwithstanding the possibility of US accepting it, the Chinese will be loathe to see greater US influence in their neighbourhood.

The Chinese view the US suspiciously when they stroll in their backyard, especially Myanmar or North Korea, the two regimes that they have a fair amount of influence on.  Chinese defence analysts tend to view such US moves as plans to surround China;  with Pakistan already firmly being under US control, and Indians being a part of the grand strategy.

As it stands now, the ChonAn incident will perhaps come to pass without a major fallout. However, as and when young Kim Jong Un ascends to power a period of greater assertiveness may be anticipated in the North's nuclear agenda.  North successfully conducted a nuclear test on 25 May 2009. As far as delivery means go, the assessment of various agencies rate North Korean capability and inventory size at approximately 600 short range missiles capable of striking South Korea; up to 300 plus Nodong Class missiles that can strike Japan; while long range missiles are yet to be fully tested. Nuclear proliferation and enhancing assistance to Myanmar, may also be on the cards.

In the bargain, the Japanese may be a little more restrained in raising their voices against Okinawa, while US deployment in East Asia might retain its boot strength for some more time to come. Not very convenient for the Chinese perhaps, but they still retain primacy. With most of the North's military assets deployed facing South Korea, the Chinese can best steamroll into North Korea and takeover the nuclear assets should the regime display unusually erratic oscillations.


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Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)