Korea's line in the sand
North Korea has told its military to prepare for war after Seoul’s accusation that the North was responsible for the torpedo attack on a South Korean warship.
On Wednesday, Pyongyang raised the stakes by threatening to halt all border traffic with its southern neighbour, as United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Seoul to discuss the growing crisis in the region.
Relations are at their lowest point for over a decade after the South announced it would slash trade, bar northern ships from its waters and resume psychological warfare after a six-year hiatus.
On Wednesday, the North cut off some cross-border communication links and expelled eight South Korean government officials from the joint industrial zone at Kaesong, Seoul’s unification ministry said.
In a message carried by the official KCNA news agency, Pyongyang added that it would “totally ban” the passage of South Korean personnel and vehicles to an area—apparently Kaesong—if Seoul began propaganda broadcasts by loudspeaker.
But even as levels of hostility rose, both sides sent clear signals they will not initiate an attack. South Korea has said it will not retaliate, despite investigations that blamed North Korea for torpedoing the Cheonan warship in March, killing 46 sailors.
Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, ordered officers to be combat-ready, but a top commander has said the North will not start the shooting.
Firing test missiles is one thing, but the North Korean army is in no shape to fight against a well-trained, well-equipped modern army from the South, backed by 29 000 US troops. North Korean forces, in contrast, have obsolete kit and morale is believed to be poor.
North Korean army defectors have described how soldiers take naps in the afternoon instead of training because there is so little to eat, revealing how the country’s chronic food shortage affects not just the civilian population but also the fighting forces.
The suspension of aid from the South since 2008 has worsened the North’s economic woes, and United Nations sanctions imposed after last year’s nuclear test have also cut into the trade in arms, the North’s key source of hard cash.
South Korea has no problem feeding its army, but President Lee Myungbak, who has ditched the kid-gloves approach of his predecessors, has foreign investors to worry about.
Kim’s call for war readiness has unnerved financial markets—the South Korean won slid to a 10-month low this week, forcing the authorities to support the currency.
China, probably the only country with any influence over Pyongyang, will also want to keep its wayward neighbour in check. Beijing’s priority is to prevent North Korea’s collapse and a refugee exodus over its southern border.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Jiang Yu, said it shared responsibility for ensuring peace on the Korean peninsula and opposed any destabilising actions. “China hopes all parties will stay calm and exercise restraint ... to avoid escalation,” she said.
The attack on the Cheonan is the latest North Korean act of aggression. In 1983 a hit squad killed the South Korean foreign minister and other top officials during a ceremony in Burma. That followed assassination attempts on other South Korean leaders in 1968 and 1974.
Behind international calls for restraint in the latest crisis is the concern that heightened military readiness could lead to a clash that could quickly escalate.
There are fears that upcoming US-South Korean military exercises in the Yellow Sea, where the Cheonan sank, will further infuriate Pyongyang, which has threatened to fire at propaganda facilities in the demilitarised zone between the two countries.—