China and belligerent ally
By Kim Jong-chan
On June 29 during the 2002 South Korea-Japan FIFA World Cup, two North Korean boats crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the western sea again. South Korean patrol ships approached to deter the infiltration, and the North abruptly opened fire, provoking the South to return fire.
North Korea’s belligerence was also manifested in an inter-Korean naval skirmish near the Yeonpyeong Island, south of the NLL, in 1999.
The NLL, the de facto western sea border, has been a flash point for inter-Korean conflicts as the North ignores the NLL, drawn up by the United Nations Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The North made both provocations, even though the then Kim Dae-jung administration was implementing the “Sunshine Policy” of engaging the reclusive state.
Last March, the sinking of the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan near the NLL stunned the world. A multinational probe concluded that a North Korean midget submarine torpedoed the 1,200-ton warship after traversing international waters into the western sea. Forty-six of the 104 sailors on board lost their lives. The North has claimed it had nothing to do with the disaster.
Almost all grave North Korean military provocations have been made at sea. But this time, as many as 170 North Korean artillery shells landed on the Yeonpyeong Island and nearby waters on Tuesday, hitting civilian homes as well as a marine base. South Korean marines stationed on the island immediately fired back 80 shells, using K-9 self-propelled guns.
Many South Koreans thought of the shelling incident as the outbreak of war. Particularly, it was unthinkable that about half of the artillery shells were directly targeted at the island. Ordinary citizens, including fishermen, were evacuated after the intentional attack began suddenly.
The island remained in a state of chaos, with forest and civilian homes ablaze with fire. A blackout caused by explosions hit hundreds of houses and crippled the telecommunication system.
The attack was roguish North Korea’s first bombardment of South Korean territory since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, marking one of the gravest violations of the Armistice Agreement.
Inter-Korean tensions heightened. The South warned that the North would face stern retaliation, should it launch additional attacks, while the North vowed to continue "merciless" military strike against the South.
There will be little room for South Korea to opt for more military action. In retrospect, the South had no choice but to address the Cheonan sinking diplomatically at the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), not militarily.
Seoul’s dilemma over the situation was shown in the remarks reportedly made by President Lee Myung-bak shortly after the bombardment began. He ordered a stern response to the attack, but asked the South Korean military to “make all-out efforts” not to aggravate the situation.
The White House issued a powerfully-worded statement at an unusual time of 4:30 a.m., hours after the shooting began, strongly condemning the attack and calling on the North to halt its belligerent action.
China’s initial response fell short of expectations. Its Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei voiced concern over the incident, but only reiterated Beijing’s call for the resumption of six-party talks to end North Korea’s nuclear programs.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula has already been entering a new phase since Pyongyang’s claims it has an operational uranium enrichment program Sunday.
Beijing’s reaction has so far been relatively lukewarm, with state media avoiding criticizing Pyongyang and underscoring North Korean allegations that South Korea triggered the fire exchange.
A giant, China has taken an assertive stance on maritime discords in Asian waters. The veto-wielding permanent UNSC member, on the other hand, has adopted a soft-gloved approach every time North Korea, its close ally, has done anything.
The UNSC is expected to convene a session to discuss the shelling incident. As it did in the Cheonan sinking, China might take a pro-North Korea tone.
China, which has the most influence on North Korean communists, should do more to restrain reckless North Korea from not only making further belligerent actions against South Korea but also pushing ahead with its uranium enrichment program, to ensure security and stability in East Asia.