As North Korea’s attack on South Korea has sparked fears of war, Eoghan Dockrell looks at the possible implications of this conflict
On Tuesday November 23rd 2010, North Korea launched an artillery attack on a small island belonging to South Korea.
That sentence could, in years to come, be the first line of a story told by historians when recalling the incident that precipitated a disastrous conflict. On Tuesday November 23rd, North Korea did in fact launch an artillery attack on South Korea. This attack, which has largely been condemned by the international community, and which seemed to have gone unnoticed by most non-Korean citizens, killed four people at the time of writing.
Yes, the loss of life was relatively small, but there are far greater implications.
Last Tuesday’s attack was not the first domino to fall, as North Korea has engaged in similar provocative actions in the past. Many diplomats and foreign policy experts believe it could be the domino that knocks the rest. The consequence of this would be, at best, the continued deterioration of a fraught relationship, and at worst, a messy nuclear confrontation where the ordinary citizens of North and South Korea would suffer the most.
It is also clear that the citizens of North Korea have already suffered significantly. To call them citizens at all is to use the term loosely. They are more comparable to subjects in the sense that they have been subjected to a brutal regime where millions live below the poverty line. The most vulnerable of these are children, a significant portion of whom receive little or no education, and the elderly, who rely entirely on support from their families. In short, because of gross economic mismanagement, the people of North Korea are facing a bleak future.
Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s 68-year-old ‘supreme leader’ would vehemently disagree with this. The propaganda arm of his regime ensures that all external news is strictly censored. As for internal news, if you were to parachute in from another planet and listen to the state broadcaster, you’d think you had landed in a Marxist paradise.
The reality is, while North Koreans continue to suffer in extreme hardship, their Southern neighbours enjoy unprecedented economic growth. South Korea was one of the few developed countries to avoid a recession during the global financial crisis. The two countries may share a border and the second barrel of their name, but the similarities stop there. The two states could not be more different, economically, politically and socially.
North Koreans live in an economy where many are forced to barter to survive. In recent years, international aid has been reduced even further. This is partly attributable to the difficult economic climate, but it is also because people are understandably reluctant to donate to an unstable, tyrannical regime that is aggressively pursuing nuclear capabilities.
Furthermore, economic sanctions by the international community, as punishment for defying warnings to desist from conducting nuclear tests, have resulted in the ordinary people of North Korea bearing the brunt of the pain. This is an intolerable state of affairs, but one that looks likely to persist for the foreseeable future, until the North decides to roll back their belligerent policy of developing nuclear armaments and re-open dialogue with South Korea.
This will be easier said than done. Many American commentators believe that North Korea’s recent provocative actions – the failed launching of satellites over Japan in 2009, the alleged sinking of a South Korean ship in 2006 and last Tuesday’s attacks – have been part of a tactic by the aging Kim Jong-il to promote his son as the heir-apparent.
But this theory advanced by western experts is speculative and because access to North Korea is so restricted, it is difficult to know the true motivations behind the incidents for certain. However, what we do know is that Kim Jong-il is not completely against opening up diplomatic lines, having recently received a visit from former US President Bill Clinton.
If the US decides to enter into talks with North Korea, then China must be an active player in these discussions. As North Korea’s largest importer of energy and aid, China is in a powerful position to persuade the North to enter into an agreement with the South. They have so far been reluctant to speak out against their North Korean allies, but this recent attack may shift their stance somewhat. This would be a significant development, as China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has consistently vetoed resolutions against the North.
In this ongoing conflict, the lion’s share of the blame lies at the feet of Kim Jong-il, but the South is not completely innocent of any wrongdoing. Their firing drills near the border have been provocative in their own right. Both parties, along with the US, China, and possibly others, must be prepared to enter into a comprehensive peace agreement. The alternative is passivity, which will almost certainly result in an escalation of tension, creating a real threat of war and further suffering for the North Korean people.