Now, as 2010 moves towards its end, massive military exercises (war games) take place around the Korean peninsula and in the Sea of Japan. Are they defensive? Are they provocative? Are we heading towards war?
The governments that came to power in Korea in 2008 and in US and Japan in 2009 turned away from peaceful change. LMB scrapped the cooperation agreement negotiated by his predecessor; Obama continued, and intensified the two wars he inherited (while engaging in pressures and threats, rather than negotiations, that suggested the possibility of a third and even a fourth, in Iran and North Korea); and Japan moves simultaneously towards participation in collective war-rehearsing exercises that are almost certainly unconstitutional, presses for construction of a new base for the Marines in Henoko, and to reinforce the SDF military presence on the outlying islands.
The downward spiral accelerated through this year,, which has been punctuated by three major events: Cheonan in March, Senkaku in September, and Yeonpyeong in November.
In March, the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sank in waters of the West Sea. A South Korea-led international investigation team blamed North Korea for a deliberate and unprovoked attack. The investigation report was later shown to be full of holes and contradictions, but the US and its allied governments and the international media endorsed it and dismissed North Korean protest. (See JJ Suh etc months ago at FCCJ, or in Japan Focus, and Hankyoreh documentary video.)
In September, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese Coastguard vessel in the contested waters off the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The US-led global coalition (and its media), without hesitation or qualification, blamed China for belligerence. Yet, by arresting the ship’s captain the Government of Japan was unilaterally abrogating the 1978 agreement with China’s Deng Xiaoping, and by insisting there was no question of Japan’s incontestable sovereignty (when clearly there is), it was insulting both China and Taiwan.
In November, a North Korean artillery barrage killed four people on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and again South Korea, together with the US and Japan, blamed North Korea for “unprovoked aggression.” Yet this was the third day of huge South Korean war games (70,000 soldiers, 500 warplanes, 90 helicopters, 50 warships) conducted just a few kilometres off North Korean shores, into waters of indeterminate legal status, from an island that South Korea occupies pending a peace treaty settlement, and which it has progressively militarized in breach of the Ceasefire (2/13). Brushing aside NK protests, SK on 23 November fired 3,657 rounds of artillery into these contested waters over four hours, until eventually North Korea did what it had said it would: it retaliated. It was, said Obama, “outrageous,” and to Hillary Clinton “provocative and belligerent behaviour” that “jeopardizes peace and stability in Asia.” Japan too saw it as an outrageous, unprovoked attack. SK’s Defense Minister spoke of reintroducing US nuclear weapons into the peninsula. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington sailed into the Yellow Sea, not only immeasurably enhancing the intimidation of North Korea but also provoking China, since its presence in these waters was as if the Chinese Navy had sailed into New York harbour or off the coast of California for war games. The US, Japan, and South Korea refused to return to the Beijing talks. Trilateral exercises (with Korean observers) in Japan’s waters followed in early December, the largest war games the US and Japan had ever conducted (with again the George Washington in pride of place).
The frequency of war games steadily rises and one thing we know from history: the more you play, the more likely it is that it ceases to be play.
Korea’s 60 Year War (1950-2010)
The war that began in Korea in June 1950 continues, merely suspended. US nuclear intimidation (Operation Hudson Harbour…) during the war continued after it. It introduced nuclear weapons into South Korea in 1958, and has continued, with only a very few periods excepted, to threaten nuclear attack to this day, 60 years from first intimidating North Korea with them. In that respect, North Korea is truly unique: it has suffered US nuclear threat far longer than any country in history. The world showed no interest so long as North Korea was and is the object of the terror, but outrage when North Korea attempted to counter the threat by the only available means: getting its own deterrent.
Security in Northeast Asia has rested for six decades on nuclear intimidation, with both Japan and South Korea clinging to what they see as their nuclear “umbrella,” but which North Koreans see as a terror weapon brandished against them. North Korea (especially after seeing what happened to Iraq in 2003) was reinforced in its belief that it could have no security without a deterrent.
Especially over the years since the end of the Cold War, it has made many efforts to negotiate a resolution, an end to the war, peace and normalization with the US and Japan, and the lifting of sanctions. It is common in mainstream international discourse to refer to the “North Korea nuclear problem” and talks to “denuclearize North Korea,” leaving the North Korean objectives of peace and normalization to some undefined point that will follow its surrender. But that has always been an unlikely scenario.
Contrary to common understanding, NK has generally stuck to its agreements, while the US (and Japan) side have oscillated wildly, reluctant to enter them and quick to scrap them. To recapitulate, in 1994 the first nuclear crisis was resolved by the Geneva Agreement of 1994, under which NK froze its plutonium programs under IAEA inspection and which saw relations in the late Clinton year warming until the exchange of high level visits took relations to the threshold of normalization. But the clock ran out, and Bush reverted to denunciation of North Korea as Axis of Evil and allegations of a secret uranium enrichment program, scraping the Geneva Agreement.
Then came the Beijing process, and in 2005 and again in 2007, agreements were reached. But, just one day after the 2005 deal, the US launched allegations of North Korean counterfeiting of US dollars. Those allegations were in due course dropped, and the Beijing parties again came to agreement in 2007: in return for North Korea disabling its facilities, readmitting international inspectors, and declaring its nuclear facilities (for eventual demolition), partner countries would supply energy aid, relax sanctions, and move towards full “normalization.” Shortly afterwards, the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang. North Korea did what was required of it, disabling its main nuclear facilities and presenting its list of those to be dismantled (with 18,000 pages of documentation), while for its part the US removed North Korea from the list of terror-supporting states and some energy aid was provided.
Again, however, the US (and Japan) walked away from the agreement, insisting that North Korea “come clean” on uranium enrichment programs that it denied it had (and later that it confess to a Syrian engagement that it also denied). As for Japan, the North Korean attempt to normalize by Kim Jong Il’s abject apology of 2002 solved nothing and actually made things worse, since Japan came to adopt the view that North Korea must satisfy it and return to it people NK has always insisted are not alive) before it (Japan) would honor its Beijing obligations. Megumi became Japan’s No foreign policy priority. No country has been more intransigent, less cooperative in the Beijing process, more resistant to North Korea’s de-listing as a terror supporting state in 2008 (and more vociferous afterwards in calling for it to be reversed), and more influential in the drafting and promoting of hard-line resolutions for the Security Council. 100 years after Japan reduced the entire peninsula to its colony, today, glaring at the half of it that it refuses to normalize relations with, it plays a lead role in isolating and denouncing it.
In other words, in 2002, 2005 and again 2007, powerful elements in Washington, Tokyo, Washington and (from 2008) Seoul combined to block negotiated agreements. Required to yield more than it had bargained for, and offered less than it had been promised, North Korea slowed, stopped, and eventually reversed its compliance.
Western and Japanese politicians and opinion leaders commonly describe NK as an inexplicable, absurd, threatening, tin-pot state that must be brought to heel, and assume that “pressure” is the only way to get things done. The record, however, suggests otherwise. Rather than threatening to rampage across any or all of its borders, it is best seen as a “porcupine state.”, You could even say a paranoid porcupine, except that paranoia is unrealistic fear, while for North Korea fear is real. The shrill, bombastic tones of its media best seen as the attempt psychologically to compensate for insecurity and fear.
It is indeed a very peculiar state, a 21st century patrimonial, absolutist monarchy. But the paradox of the 60-year war is that nothing so helps sustain the dictatorship as the extraordinary external pressures upon it. While intimidation does not compel the North Korean leadership to submit, it provides an instrument to mobilize the country in a spirit of what in Japan used be called kokutai goji (in that case around the tenno family, in this one around the Kim family) Paradoxically, the quickest way to lighten the people’s suffering and to improve their human rights would be to normalize relations with the state, since nothing so helps sustain the dictatorship as the tension of confrontation and threat. As the South Korean people dispatched their military dictatorship in 1987, in defiance of US and Japanese supports for the regime, so if allowed to do so, would the North Korean people surely deal with their dictatorship.
In diplomatic terms only one weapon has proved effective with North Korea: respect. Under South Korean sunshine policies, the North Korean mists began to lift. Likewise when US governments have shown respect and concern for face, negotiations have borne fruit. The North Korea problem is not that of a violent or aggressive state but the unresolved legacy of a century of Japanese imperialism, national division and civil and international war, marked by persistent international intervention. What is needed now is not more intimidation and sanctions but some sense of history, some wisdom and humanity, and the political will to launch negotiations for a peace treaty and comprehensive normalization. KJI is commonly denounced as a madman, but those who meet and talk to him (Koizumi included) report a highly intelligent and quick-witted man, with firm grasp of the state of the world.
According to Jimmy Carter:
So the strangeness of North Korea’s state formation is matched only by the strangeness of the US and Japanese refusal to negotiate in good faith, and their insistence on turning this poor, paranoid kingdom into a Hitlerite threat to the peace of East Asia, perhaps the most hated and despised country in modern history.
“Pyongyang has sent a consistent message that during direct talks with the US, it is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programs, put them all under IAEA inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the 1953 ceasefire.”One can even wonder does the US require North Korea, as a threatening “other,” a bogeyman that justifies the maintenance of the web of alliances on which US hegemony rests. What is clear as of late 2010, however, is that to leave things as they are, or simply to reinforce the alliances, the war games, and the hostility, is a recipe for disaster.
Gavan McCormack is a coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focus, and author of many previous texts on Okinawa-related matters. His Client State: Japan in the American Embrace was published in English (New York: Verso) in 2007 and in expanded and revised Japanese, Korean, and Chinese versions in 2008. He is an emeritus professor of Australian National University.