NORTH-EAST ASIA: Calls Rise for Sober Response to Pyongyang

  • by Suvendrini Kakuchi (tokyo)
  • Sunday, November 28, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

In truth, these angry reactions, which include calls for revenge, cannot go farther than a show of force at this point, they say, because Asian countries are far from united on how to approach North Korea. Likewise, this could goad Pyongyang into yet more extreme action.

After North Korea’s firing of artillery shells on Yeonpyeong island that led to the deaths of two civilian residents and two soldiers on Nov. 23, Seoul and Washington have been undertaking joint military exercises to send a strong message to North Korea. Protests have seen the burning of North Korean flags in Seoul, as the soldiers were buried on Nov. 27.

Clearly, the attack has shattered East Asian allies’ wait-and-see attitude thus far toward Pyongyang.

'The rage expressed is understandable,' explains Prof Masao Okonogi, a respected expert on the Korean peninsula. 'Still, the former pacifist logic based on the stark difficulty of dealing with a rogue state also suspected of having nuclear weapon capability, must not be forgotten.'

The artillery shelling by North Korea is its worst act of aggression since the 1987 bombing of a Korean Airlines jetliner by a North Korean spy that killed more than 100 civilians.

'There is a feeling that more attacks from North Korea could happen, so it’s best to put on a show of military strength among the allies. Still, what might work better could be the display of a shrewd diplomacy that tries to corner the North into stop its provocations,' explains Prof Mitsuru Yamada, an Asia expert at Waseda University.

Thus far, Okonogi says the diplomatic reactions to North Korea’s provocation have been the usual ones, such as putting pressure on Pyongyang ally China to condemn the attack — although this is clearly not something Beijing will agree to easily.

'The fact is that the North Korean regime will maintain its iron grip on power and will just not show any repentance. Expecting China to achieve the impossible is only pushing prospects further away from building a tighter multilateral alliance to control the North,' Okonogi says.

As in the past, Beijing has avoided condemning North Korea’s action and called for the resumption of the stalled six-party talks on the divided Korean peninsula as soon as possible.

The six-party conference, comprising China, South Korea and North Korea, the United States, Russia and Japan, has imposed U.N. sanctions to stop North Korea’s suspected nuclear programme. The ‘Korea Times’ newspaper, quoting Yonhap news agency, has said China is 'either speaking doubletalk or North Korea snubbed Beijing’s peace proposal', referring to a meeting between South Korean President Lee Myung- bak and China’s President Hu Jintao in August where Lee was assured that China is prodding the North to improve inter-Korean ties.

Theories abound as to the motivation beyond North Korea’s latest attack.

Some say this was a North Korean attempt to get the United States to restart the six-party negotiations. Others say it is linked to the succession issue in North Korea, and was part of an attempt by Pyongyang leader Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un, to show that he could assert his power soon after reports about leadership change this came out in October.

Still other media reports had it that North Korea carried out the attack as a response to South Korean military exercises near Yeonpyeong island.

But while anger continues to peak, the mainstream ‘Korea Herald’ newspaper has quoted some South Korean groups that blame the ruling Grand National Party’s uncompromising measures against the North for cornering the Stalinist state into taking extreme actions.

Last week, South Korea stopped shipments of promised aid, including medical supplies and cement, to North Korea, while increasing pressure on world leaders to condemn the shelling.

U.S. President Barack Obama called North Korea a 'serious and ongoing threat that needs to be dealt with', saying Washington will stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with South Korea.

Here in Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, already struggling with shaky relations with China, told the Japanese Diet (Parliament) that Japan will cooperate with the United States and South Korea to defuse the crisis and prevent an escalation of tensions on Korean peninsula.

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara will fly to Washington in December for meetings that will also include his counterpart from South Korea.

All of these reflect the worries in North-east Asia and beyond about a bigger attack from North Korea, whose nuclear plans already leave its neighbours nervous.

Against this backdrop, Yamada advocates what he calls an 'Asian' diplomatic approach that recognises the constraints on united, drastic action set by historical realities in the region — lingering wounds from Japan’s past colonisation of East Asia and the 1950-1953 Korean War that pitched the United States against North Korea and China.

'Logically, yes, the North Korean dictatorship must be weakened as soon as possible,' Yamada explains. 'But the hard truth is that East Asia is too divided to rush into a military solution. The stakes are too high, the best is a step-by- step approach to work towards trust, which means looking closely at bilateral and multilateral negotiations.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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