Op-Ed Contributors

Will Peninsula see peace this year?

By Yang Danzhi (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-01-05 08:27
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Stephen Bosworth, the United States special representative for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) policy, is visiting the Republic of Korea (ROK), China, and Japan from Tuesday to Friday. His visits are considered a fresh move to resume the stalled Six-Party Talks.

In complete contrast to the way last year ended, this year has started with hopes of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Tension on the Peninsula began rising from March 2010, when the ROK corvette, Cheonan, sank. But the Nov 23 exchange of fire between the DPRK and the ROK really raised the specter of a war. As tension rose, the ROK held live-fire drills on Yeonpyeong Island, and the ROK Defense Ministry's white paper, released on Dec 30, termed the DPRK government and its military an "enemy".

But contrary to its earlier warnings that it would respond militarily to any ROK threat, the DPRK said the live-fire drills were "not worth responding to". The DPRK's unexpected response drew worldwide attention.

The international community cannot ignore the DPRK's strategic rationality. Because of its apparent weakness, Pyongyang has to choose special means to survive. That's why it has been trying to develop "asymmetric combat capabilities", including nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. At the strategic level, the DPRK's strategy has been clear and consistent. The DPRK has an edge in strategic design over the other countries that have a stake in the Korean Peninsula, including big powers.

In case of interaction, friction and even confrontation, the DPRK can judge accurately the strategic intentions, domestic problems, mutual contradictions and potential reactions of the other parties. Pyongyang chooses to either participate in multilateral negotiations or resort to military action according to its strategic design and prior judgment of a situation, and almost always has taken the other parties by surprise.

But behind the DPRK's seemingly unconventional and irrational moves lies its strategic rationality. For example, during the Nov 23 exchange of fire, the DPRK could have targeted Seoul but it chose not to, indicating that its foreign policy is not reckless. Almost all its actions are meant to draw the international community's attention. It doesn't want to see the situation go completely out of control, though, for that would be against its interests.

Blaming the DPRK for the Cheonan incident, Seoul threatened to take tough countermeasures against Pyongyang. To prove a point, the ROK held joint military drills with the United States in the waters off the Peninsula. That, and its response to the Nov 23 exchange of fire shows that Seoul does not have a clear strategic design or effective crisis reaction mechanisms.

It seems that ROK President Lee Myung-bak has multiple purposes for reacting the way he did. He wants to consolidate the US-ROK alliance and strengthen mutual coordination on security; display the ROK's military strength as proof of his government's confidence and determination to protect national interests and deter the DPRK; and to serve domestic political needs.

The pressure created by the sinking of Cheonan and the exchange of fire has forced the ROK government to reshuffle its forces and officials. Frequent military exercises, even if they are just for show, can soothe people's frayed nerves. And because of its increasing strength in regional affairs, the ROK, with the help of the US, wants to dictate terms to the DPRK and draw it into a showdown.

So, which country stands to gain most from the continuing tension on the Peninsula? In a way, it's the US, because it will have a good excuse to maintain its military bases in the region, and a short-term war could help its economy. But once the US realizes that its brinkmanship has yielded enough gains, it would adjust its policies. For that, of course, it needs to interact with the DPRK.

There exists an unofficial communication channel between the US and the DPRK, although its effectiveness is limited. For example, after the governor of the US state of New Mexico visited the DPRK, Pyongyang allowed United Nations nuclear inspectors to return to its nuclear facility and agreed to negotiate the sale of its fuel rods. This shows that the US can bring about dramatic changes on the Peninsula if it wants to.

Russia has been active in mediating peace after the Nov 23 exchange of fire, showing how important the situation on the Peninsula is for its security. In fact, Russia is willing to make further efforts to defuse the tension.

China, despite the best efforts to restore peace on the Peninsula, is the victim of the brinkmanship of hostile parties. The deteriorating situation on the Peninsula, especially the US' military intervention, has exposed China to threats and strategic squeeze.

China has to rethink its policy toward the Peninsula and make its interests, demands and determination to resolve the crisis known to the international community. Apart from that, it has to strengthen communication and coordination with the ROK and the other parties that have a stake in the Korean Peninsula.

Partly because of China's efforts, Rodong Sinmun, the DPRK's biggest state-run newspaper, and two other leading newspapers, published a joint New Year's editorial, saying that tension between the DPRK and the ROK should be defused as early as possible and active efforts taken to create an atmosphere of dialogue and cooperation by placing the common interests of the Korean people above anything else.

In response, Lee Myung-bak said in a special New Year's address on Jan 3: "The door for dialogue is still open and if the North exhibits sincerity, we have both the will and the plan to drastically enhance economic cooperation together with the international community."

This is a welcome departure from their usual rhetoric and holds out hope for peace and stability. But the joint efforts of all the parties will be needed to transform these goodwill gestures into reality.

The author is a research scholar with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily 01/05/2011 page9)