Militarization Of The Isands Is Not The Solution

June 29th, 2012

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, on June 29th 2002. The First Battle of Yeonpyeong was fought on June 15th, 1999, and claimed the lives of between 17 and 30 DPRK sailors. The Second Battle saw the death of 6 ROK sailors and 13 DPRK sailors. This happened despite the fact that humanitarian aid to the DPRK had been growing steadily during the period 1997-2002[1] and the DPRK had received a further $500m in exchange for participating in the 2000 inter-Korean summit. Both of these clashes took place along the Northern Limit Line.

The Northern Limit Line (NLL) has long been considered as the most dangerous area on the Korean Peninsula and yet goes overlooked as a focal point for diplomatic pressure. Initially imposed in 1953, in response to concerns about ROK President Syngman Rhee threatening the Armistice Agreement[2], it was also a restraint on the DPRK. It was close to this line where the two naval battles occurred. In 2010, the corvette Cheonan sank in disputed circumstances, while Yeonpyeong Island has been subjected to an artillery attack from the North.

The response from the ROK was an increased militarization of the islands, which has not restored peace in the Yellow Sea. The ROK, after all, had the perfect excuse and all the capability to retaliate well beyond the response provided on November 23rd, 2010 and failed to do so (or: preferred not to do so). So much for the deterrence from the forces based on the islands or, for that matter, on the mainland. The economic disparity between the two Koreas means that having much more to lose than the DPRK constrains the ROK’s military strength in practice, regardless of the balance of forces on paper.

The islands are situated in disputed waters and the DPRK uses this to its advantage. When unhappy with current policy, the regime may signal its uneasiness by provoking a clash, as in 1999, or attacks, as seen on Yeonpyeong in 2010. After China established diplomatic relations with the ROK in 1992[3], Chinese fishing boats were fired upon by DPRK naval vessels. The recent hijacking of Chinese fishing boats in May, whether sanctioned by the DPRK leadership or not, provided a recent reminder that DPRK compliance with Chinese interests in the area is far from guaranteed. Similarly, the reason behind this incident has been attributed to the DPRK’s discontent with recent Chinese foreign policy.

The bad news for policy makers is that even when inter-Korean relations are relatively cordial, the danger of clashes remains. The 2002 clash occurred during the most positive period in inter-Korean relations, otherwise known as the Sunshine Policy decade (1997 – 2007). There is a strong possibility that domestic political wrangling over economic reforms was responsible for the 2002 clash[4]. Domestic politics was also cited as a cause of the Yeonpyeong Island attack. The islands have still not been tested against the full strength of the DPRK military. No aircraft or naval vessels were used to attack the Island. The new capabilities being given to the ROK forces in the area will make retaliation easier but can’t stop the type of artillery attack we saw in 2010. So, if militarization of the islands and cordial inter-Korean relations on matters unrelated to those territories can’t maintain the peace, what is the solution? Perhaps, providing the DPRK with a substantial incentive to avoid confrontation in the area.

This could be done by setting up a joint fishing zone, a solution explored by President Roh Moo Hyun in 2007 without success. The international economic isolation endured by the DPRK means that access to fish and blue crab (of which the waters surrounding the islands are abundant) is especially important. The DPRK could be expected to show strong interest in such a zone, though the details may prove more difficult to agree. An opportunity to expand its maritime economic territories offers the DPRK government an opportunity to make a slight improvement in the living standards for its citizens without implementing widespread economic reforms which could threaten internal stability.

Satisfying the ROK fishing industry, not to mention the National Assembly and the public, would not be easy, but if the joint fishing zone also offers opportunities for ROK fisherman to expand their catch areas, there is a chance of reaching an agreement. The ultimate goal should be a Maritime Demilitarized Zone, (or MDMZ). Both Koreas could maintain deterrence postures towards one another either side of the Military Demarcation Line on the mainland, but the risks of an accidental clash along a disputed maritime territorial line would be sharply reduced.

The prospects for any Yellow Sea zone of co-operation, be it a joint fishing zone, inter-Korean sea lanes or an MDMZ, are minimal for the remainder of Presidents Lee and Obama’s terms. In an election year, Obama is unlikely to take conciliatory measures to encourage the DPRK to make a deal after having his fingers burned by the DPRK’s announcement of a missile launch quickly after a deal to resume food aid was agreed in February. In turn, the DPRK will probably be hesitant about U.S. support that could be vulnerable to reversal, in case of a change of administration in the U.S. As for President Lee, his party is likely to be circumspect about raising such a complex issue with the DPRK ahead of the ROK presidential election in December. President Lee’s administration is more likely to seek simple gains ahead of elections, such as a short-term moratorium on missile testing from the DPRK in exchange for food aid, and that is if it wishes to negotiate at all. Changes in public opinion as the clashes of 2010 recede into history must be watched carefully. The NLL and the Yellow Sea represent both a threat to inter-Korean relations and an opportunity. A chance to negotiate must immediately be exploited.

[1] Insoo Kim and Minyong Lee, “Has South Korea’s Engagement Policy Reduced North Korea’s Provocations?,” North Korean Review Vol 7, No. 2, 2011, p. 59

[2] See Daniel Ten Kate and Peter S. Green, “Defending Korea Line Seen Contrary to Law by Kissinger Remains US Policy,” Bloomberg, 17 December 2010.

[3] Mark J. Valencia, “Asia, the Law of the Sea and international relations,” International Affairs Vol 73, No. 2, 1997, p. 273

[4] [4] Robert L. Carlin and Joel S. Wit, North Korean Reform Politics, economics and security (Oxon: Routledge, 2006)