The Balloon Launch Aftermath: Crisis Averted, For Now

October 21st, 2012

It’s been a busy week at the two major hotspots on the Korean Peninsula – the DMZ and the Northern Limit Line (NLL). On Monday, a planned leaflet release by South Korean activists at the Imjingak pavilion, which sits right near the border, was blocked, although activists later released the leaflets at a site about an hour away. The North Korean military had made specific threats, warning residents to evacuate before the launch in “anticipating of possible damage.”

The North had warned that such threats were not “empty talk” – and, in this case, they may not have been bluffing. South Korean military sources said, “North Korea’s frontline artillery batteries forward-deployed self-propelled guns, towed howitzers and personnel at fire positions” up until later in the afternoon, when the activists had been successfully blocked.

In the coming days, the decision by the South Korean government to prevent the launch from the original site will no doubt be criticized as giving in to North Korean threats. But the alternative was the very real possibility that the North Koreans would bombard the launch site, which could have led to a dangerous escalation between the two sides. Both the North and South can be happy with how the events ultimately unfolded. For the North, the new regime showed it could force the South Korean government to block the launches, but didn’t have to resort to actual violence in order to do so. For the South, they prevented a potentially dangerous situation from breaking out, and the activists were able to launch the leaflets in any case.

The NLL was also in the news, as Lee Myung Bak visited Yeonpyeong Island for the first time since he became president, stating the South Korean military “should risk their lives to safeguard the western sea border.” The North responded to Lee’s visit in a number of articles in both KCNA and Rodong Sinmun, including a Q & A by a spokesman of the National Defense Commission’s Policy Department. Unsurprisingly, the unidentified spokesman said that Lee’s visit to Yeonpyeong Island was a “foolish attempt to disturb the nation’s peace and stability, escalate confrontation and provoke a war by preserving the NLL, the root cause of confrontation and clash.”  It goes on to say that the NLL is “quite contrary to the Convention of the International Law of Sea or the Armistice Agreement and provisions of the north-south agreement.” In previous statements, the North has said the only true sea line in the West Sea is their own Chosun West Sea Demarcation Line.

Interestingly, the spokesman also made an oblique reference to the NLL’s emergence as a campaign issue in recent weeks (“With the puppet presidential election at hand, the issue of NLL has become a serious political matter between the progressive and conservative forces in south Korea.”) Rep. Chung Moon Hun of the ruling Saenuri Party accused former liberal President Roh Moo Hyun of telling Kim Jong Il “(I) am annoyed because of the NLL. The line was arbitrarily drawn up by the U.S. to win more territory (after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War),” and also that “South Korea will not insist on the NLL from now on, and the issue will automatically die away if the two Koreas are pushing for joint fishing (in the NLL zone).”

The claim has set off controversy within South Korea and immediately inserted itself into the presidential race. Moon Jae In, the progressive candidate for president and Roh’s Chief of Staff, accused “the ruling party and the presidential office of using a political plot against the liberal camp before the year-end election.” Meanwhile, two former Roh secretaries also stated “there was no private meeting, no secret agreement, and no secret records, either.”

Photo by Marion Doss