As North Korea Severs Ties, Is Violence Near?

The situation on the Korean peninsula grows tenuous

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In the week since investigators announced that the recently sunk South Korean ship had been attacked by a North Korean torpedo, the tension on the Korean peninsula has only grown, reportedly shaking global markets. As regional leaders try to deter North Korean aggression, both Korean states have escalated the conflict. First South Korea pursued an embargo of North Korea, which has now retaliated by vowing to sever all economic and diplomatic ties. They have also accused the South of "military provocation." South Korea has reported losing track of four North Korean submarines. How serious is the risk of violence becoming?

  • Conflict Unlikely, but Region Bracing for Worst   Reuters' Phil Stewart reports "analysts say the possibility of a major conflict between the two Koreas is remote." However, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are planning "trilateral talks" in June and "Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has said tension on the Korean peninsula underlined the importance of tight U.S.-Japan ties and was key to his decision to keep a controversial U.S. airbase on Okinawa island."
  • 'Closer to a Flashpoint' AFCEA NightWatch's John McCreary comments, "The events on Tuesday moved the increased tension closer to a flashpoint. The North has completed its isolation from the South, the kind of move it orchestrates when there are internal leadership problems as well as in reaction to external threats. The resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts is one of the two actions by South Korea that the North announced on Monday would result in a shooting incident across the Demilitarized Zone, in the central sector. The South is calling the North's bluff, except the North is not bluffing. That means the South should have a contingency plan in place that includes retaliation responses prepared in advance."
  • Foreign Powers Must Guide Reconciliation The Guardian declares, "Relations between the two Koreas are at their worst for decades. ... Outside powers must restrain the parties, and, in particular, China must restrain North Korea, since it is the only country that has any real leverage in Pyongyang." They call Korea "one of the most volatile relationships on the planet" and insist on international forces guiding reconciliation.
  • Should NK Be Designated Terrorist State? Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin reports, "back in Washington, calls are heating up for the Obama administration to take punitive measures like putting North Korea back on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. But the Obama administration is clearly signaling it does not intend to do that any time soon. The calculation is that the listing, which administration officals see as having been overly politicized by George W. Bush's administration, is more trouble than it's worth."
  • China's Growing Concern of NK Stability National Review's Reuben Johnson speculates of Kim Jong-Il's early May trip to China, "It is not just the sinking of the Cheonan that has Beijing worried about what is happening inside the 'Hermit Kingdom.' There are a number of signs that China's rulers are worried about the Kim regime's stability in general and the North Korean ruler's physical condition and mental state in particular. Informed speculation holds that the Chinese leadership wanted to see firsthand to what degree Kim is now mentally and/or physically impaired." He says "Beijing lacks confidence in Kim's health" and his stability as a ruler. Should the rest of the world share that concern?
South Korea took an important step this week, announcing that it will bar North Korean ships from its waters, cease most trade with and investment in North Korea, and join the Proliferation Security Initiative. The U.S. must ensure that South Korea holds firm on these policies, and it should push other countries to implement them and to close their airspace to North Korean aircraft. The U.S. and its allies should also announce that they are postponing negotiations with North Korea on all other issues until this matter is resolved.

Furthermore, Washington must increase its military cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo, including by bolstering its naval presence in the region and engaging in anti-submarine and mine-clearing operations. Finally, the U.S. should declare North Korea a state sponsor of terror and sanction countries and companies that violate existing Security Council resolutions, for example by failing to freeze Pyongyang's assets and aiding in its acquisition and sale of weapons and WMD components.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.