A Chinese businessman recently in Pyongyang reportedly snapped a picture of a propaganda poster that shows a naval soldier smashing a ship in half with the words below the image stating “Deom-byeo-deul-myeon Dan-mae-e!” (“Ready to crush any attack with a single blow!”).
Radio Free Asia reported the story and released the photo and comments from the businessman who wished to remain anonymous. In addition, the report referred to comments made by a South Korean military expert who said the ship isn’t just any random vessle but a corvette just like the Cheonan which was blown in half on March 26 killing 46 sailors. A multinational international investigative team presented evidence that pointed to a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine, though intrigue has lingered along with North Korea’s denial of involvement.
After the two Koreas presented their cases to the UN Security Council, it was unclear what, if anything, the Council could or would do. The result was a rather ambiguous statement condeming the attack on a Republic of Korea vessle with no mention of the perpetrator in name (there was a mention of the the North’s plea to the UN that it “had nothing to do with the incident”). North Korea welcomed the UN statement as a “victory” and surely a sign that China remains a steadfast ally which surely has some shifting in their seats. Still there are diplomatic insiders who see the statement as a victory for South Korea and its allies given that China and Russia at least signed on
Since the statement the North Koreans requested a meeting with the U.S.-led United Nations Command which was subsequently held on July 15 at the truce village of Panmunjom which lies on the border between the separated countries. Reportedly the meeting between colonel-level representatives lasted an hour and a half and mainly concerned a general-level which would be held at a date to be announced.
All of this has taken place while the U.S. and South Korea plan military drills, something that has been underway for several months. The off and on status of the large scale drills which will include an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. George Washington, is indicative of the sensitivity and calculation that is involved. China has already said it opposes any military drills off its coast and it would seem that such opposition is being considered.
Yet, as of today it has been announced that several destroyers along with the George Washington will visit Busan from July 21 to 25. Moreover, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are scheduled to arrive in Seoul mid-week to hold a high-profile meeting with their counterparts here; many expect the formal announcement of the military drills during the visit. The AFP has quoted a high level U.S. defense official saying the drills would be carried out over “a period of months.” This certainly could tie in with the other announcement over the weekend that the U.S., Singapore, Japan and Australia will join South Korea for an anti-proliferation drill off of Busan in October. The drill is related to the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) which aims to to prevent the shipping of weapons by stopping vessles that are suspected of carrying them. North Korea, a known arms dealer, previously reacted to South Korea’s joining of the initiative by saying it was a declaration of war.
However, as the heat rises, a carrot in the form of New Mexican Govenor Bill Richardson may be in the mix. The JoongAng Daily reported that North Korea had invited Richardson—an old hand at foreign policy missions from Cuba and Sudan to North Korea (he’s visited six times)—to visit to discuss diverse diplomatic issues. Apparently the invitation was offered in May by a North Korean ambassador to the UN (Richardson is a former UN ambassador himself).
Whatever happens in the next few months it is clear that all players have interests of their own and for the region. China is not happy that the U.S. will be practicing war outside its back door and it’s fairly certain that they’re not happy with the Cheonan sinking (their public ambivalence is a necessary evil). They need stability for the economy to keep rolling and for North Korea to stay afloat less swarms of refugees flood their border.
Russia also doesn’t want to see U.S. military exercises in its backyard and it really doesn’t have much to gain by castigating the North. Remnants of the Cold War remain (despite rumors of their death) and it was the USSR that trained and put Kim Il-sung into place thereby establishing the cult of personality that exists today.
The U.S. in some senses benefits from having a reason to conduct such drills—along with a reason to maintain a presence in the region—but it also doesn’t want war. It seems fairly evident that an opened and developing North (without nukes) would be more preferred by the current administration.
South Korea needs economic stability as well but it appears that the era of detente (if it even was that) left North Korea with nuclear weapons, a sustained regime and an equally unpredictable military strategy. Some sort of foot needs to be put down.
North Korea remains as reclusive and Byzantine as ever, plotting and scheming to maintain it military first policies and its juche or self-reliance principles. If it is true that the sinking of the Cheonan was related to the changing of leadership with Kim Jong-il handing over the reins of a rickety wagon to his youngest son Kim Jong-un, then the show goes on and the curtain could be raised on the third act.
Everything remains to be seen.
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