ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Way Forward

A comprehensive peace agreement is the only viable option in the Korean peninsula.

In the past year or so, all hopes of a steady ascent to peace in the Korean peninsula have been belied. The latest in a series of skirmishes was provoked on 23 November 2010 by the huge South Korean and US war-simulation exercises (called “Hoguk”, translated as “Defend the State”), which were slated to be conducted over nine days. North Korea called for a halt to such exercises and demanded that the South Korean-US military combine stop the firing of artillery into its territorial waters. These are contested waters near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), which was unilaterally drawn by the US Navy in 1953 and has never been accepted by North Korea. The latter retaliated by shelling Yeonpyeong Island and the South Korean side in turn fired at North Korean bases. US President Barack Obama then despatched USS George Washington, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and other warships for the conduct of additional war exercises with the South Korean military beginning 28 November. Mercifully, however, better sense prevailed; the US-South Korean war exercises, though they resumed, were shifted out of the contested waters and conducted 125 miles south of the NLL.

When one looks at this case of hostilities, it seems limited to a dispute over territorial waters, unresolved since the Korean armistice in 1953, which was temporary, for the war was never formally brought to an end. There is, as yet, no permanent peace treaty based upon a mutual recognition of maritime borders. Despite the summit meeting of 2000 in Pyongyang between South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il and subsequent steps in de-escalating hostility between the two countries, formal diplomatic channels to prevent border clashes, whether on the land or the sea on Korea’s west coast, have not been put in place. But prior South Korean administrations – that is, the ones before the coming into office of the current one, which has taken a very hostile stance – did make progress in trying to put such a diplomatic framework in place. In October 2007, the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003-08) and Kim Jong-il agreed to work towards the putting in place of a joint fishing area leading to the creation of a “peace and cooperation zone” in the West (Yellow) Sea. But things have since deteriorated following the ascension of the hawkish current President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul, who abrogated the inter-Korean accord from the 2000 summit. Relations deteriorated ever further when South Korea decided to fully participate in a US-led naval interdiction initiative. In March 2010, the torpedoing of a South Korean navy corvette, the Cheonan, accepted by the mainstream media to have been undertaken by North Korea (but challenged by rigorous scientific and empirical analyses), led to an intensification of hostilities.

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