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The Asian side of the world - II

Jean-François Sabouret

Part One. Regional dynamics and globalization

Inter-Korean tensions: ideology first, at any cost?

Alain Nass

Texte intégral

1October 2011

22010 was the worst year of inter-Korean confrontation for decades. Human losses were heavy in the south, with about 50 military and civilian victims after two major incidents in the West Sea: a ship of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy was sunk by an undetected action attributed to the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), which then poured artillery shells on Yongpyeong Island. The result of the ROK military response is not known.

3The reasons for these events, which have had long-lasting effects on inter-Korean relations, reflect the reciprocal choice for firmness and confrontation made in 2008 and the difficulty of getting out of the spiral of violence dominated by ideological confrontation. As Pyongyang wants to make 2012 the year of consolidation of its regime and a presidential election is to be held in the south, will there be a move towards negotiation and easing of relations or aggravation of the tensions?

The rising crisis

4In early 2008, a new conservative administration took over in Seoul. Determined to break with the liberal approach to the north of the two previous presidencies, it enacted policies contrary to those followed previously. In order to be firmer with the regime in Pyongyang, the administration backtracked on several inter-Korean projects and agreements that were accused of funding the regime, advocated strict reciprocity and stopped automatic aid; it made the DPRK nuclear issue a bilateral priority. At the same time, Seoul strengthened its economic and military ties with its US ally.

5The North Korean regime took a long time to express an opinion on this new Government, responding first verbally, asking that all inter-Korean commitments be respected, then denouncing Seoul more and more strongly for its “intransigence and provocations” (controversy over preemptive strikes).

6In mid-2008, the accidental death of a South Korean tourist who had inadvertently entered a military compound in the North worsened the relationship. The regime refused to apologize, and the Conservatives in the South used this incident to justify their intransigence, to denounce the liberal approach and to suspend the so-called sunshine policy. The incident thus compromised any easing of contacts, the question of a prior apology emerging as a new obstacle.

7Starting in 2009, the degradation of relations became overt, with frequent tensions and significant degradation of exchanges (end of joint exploitation of the Keumkang Tourism Resort, blockage of the Kaesong industrial complex). Direct contacts were interrupted, and the flagship programmes of reconciliation (meetings of separated families) were suspended.

8In the North, the elite who had supported opening up with Seoul and had benefited from the trade it generated was purged. On top of a failed economic reform, the health problems of the leader speeded up implementation of a viable mechanism for a succession, to fill a possible power vacuum. This process, with its potential instability, played into the hands of hardliners in the regime, who were already concerned about the destabilizing effects of the opening up with Seoul. Their approach was legitimized by the quickly deteriorating relations.

  • 1 The Government in Seoul even convinced the Obama administration not to renew the “North Korea” app (...)

9The Seoul Government, better backed militarily by the US and therefor better assured of its security in a crisis, strengthened its intransigent, conditional approach, which was not challenged by the new Democrat US administration1, which arrived in 2009. Most Conservatives estimated that, with strong international support, firmness was preferable and could force the regime to surrender to the conditions of Seoul in order to survive and avoid collapse.

10The Pyongyang regime, however, demonstrated that other, more painful alternatives exist and once again showed its capacity for resilience in the face of adversity, choosing the West Sea as its battlefield. This zone of direct military contact between the two Koreas, where the demarcation line is not agreed upon, had already been the theatre of regular clashes (1999, 2002 and 2009). The mutual desire for revenge and confrontation predominated.

11Thus, within a few months, inter-Korean relations again became hostage to the most hardline politicians on both sides of the demilitarized zone, paving the way for a clash.

2010, confrontation

The sinking of the “Cheonan”

12On 26 March, a ROK Navy ship, the Cheonan, patrolling the West Sea near the demarcation line was cut in two by an explosion and sunk, killing 46 sailors of a crew of 104.

  • 2 With the US, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Sweden
  • 3 Ministry of National Defence, Joint Investigation Report on the Attack against ROK Ship Cheonan, S (...)
  • 4 “Russian Navy Expert Team’s Analysis on the Cheonan Incident”, The Hankyoreh, 27 July 2010.

13The international investigation by the ROK Government2, concluded in May that the DPRK had been involved3, and debris from a North Korean torpedo (propeller) was found by dredging the scene of the sinking. North Korea has always denied responsibility, international condemnation was not unanimous, and some technical findings of the investigation remain disputed. A team of experts from the Russian Navy made separate analyses, which have not been made public4, with other hypotheses.

14The event also cast doubt on the effectiveness of US-ROK monitoring of the West Sea, an admittedly difficult but small area, which has been closely monitored for decades, where the water is not deep (30-40 m at the site) and the channels well known. Undetected underwater activity despite the amount of the equipment deployed by the allies (further strengthened by a joint naval exercise involving US Navy ships in the south) is disquieting. It indicates an unsuspected capability of the North Korean military and a highly sophisticated operation that escaped detection before and after the action, despite travelling a long distance in shallow waters.

Artillery shelling of Yongpyeong island

15In November, contributing to the fatal crescendo of tensions already exacerbated by the Cheonan incident, the DPRK responded to live firing exercises by the ROK in the West Sea by a salvo of heavy artillery on the inhabited island of Yongpyeong, leaving 4 dead, 19 injured and heavy damage. This direct military action against ROK territory was unprecedented since the 1950s and the war.

Lessons learnt and prospects

16When the new Seoul Government introduced its new approach to the North in 2008, it sought to denounce the “errors” of the Liberal presidencies, using inter-Korean relations as a vector. This internal approach, however, weighed instantly on the still-fragile North-South relations, built laboriously since 1991, the year of the first major inter-Korean agreements.

17For Seoul it was also, in full accordance with its inter-Korean principles and its calculations for domestic policy, a means of “rehabilitating” its alliance with Washington, which was considered to have deteriorated under the Liberals. The rapprochement was helped by a good relationship and ideological proximity with the Bush administration. Its military component (joint exercises and planning, scenarios for interventions in the North) reactivated the fears of Pyongyang, confronted by its own weaknesses and the risk of a coordinated external intervention in a crisis, and strengthened the determination of the regime to guard against risk by improving its deterrent capability and emphasizing threat it represented.

18The escalation of intransigent rhetoric on both sides reignited military tensions and postures, directed by the North either at the US (missiles and nuclear testing, HEU program) to lure them into negotiation, or at the South.

19The firmness showed by Seoul quickly reached its limits. Although it may have weakened the regime, it was concluded that that might contribute to an overt crisis or even to collapse, which neither Seoul nor the other players wanted. To be effective, it had to rely even more on the US, which had all the necessary means (vigilance, anticipation, reaction), at the risk of not mastering decisions and reactions in to incident, the US having no interest in the situation getting out of control, as they were also in the front line.

20Those incidents have shown once again that, beyond the rhetoric, retaliation is still not a credible option, and the North knows it. Firmness can even be counterproductive: it resulted in the disappearance of relays and contacts between the South and the North forged through exchanges, and that network would have to be rebuilt. Positions dearly acquired in the commercial field and exploitation of natural resources in North Korea were abandoned, to the benefit of the Chinese, who will be difficult to dislodge.

21Seoul lost the initiative in a project in which progress depends more on Washington and Beijing, who are the only players capable of controlling the escalation and dissuading Pyongyang from and who are making efforts to facilitate a return to dialogue.

22It would more appropriate and realistic in the short term to return to negotiation and detente, despite the financial (aid) and ideological (accept the regime and discuss on equal terms) costs. History has shown that Seoul will gain room for manoeuvre and status, not only with the North but also the US and its Chinese neighbour, than in any phase of intransigence. This attitude has the advantage of creating trust, influence and dependence in the North, which are useful for reducing tensions and for South Korean interests.

23With just one year left before the ROK presidential election, however, the clock is ticking, and Seoul has lost the initiative on the inter-Korean issue, which depends on Washington and Beijing for any progress. Another policy is possible, as now requested by South Korea, but, to be credible, it will be necessary to change the people around the President who are still advocating intransigence.


1 The Government in Seoul even convinced the Obama administration not to renew the “North Korea” approach of President Clinton, which raised conflict with the Republicans and was traumatizing for the Democrats, who lost the presidential election.

2 With the US, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Sweden

3 Ministry of National Defence, Joint Investigation Report on the Attack against ROK Ship Cheonan, September 2010.

4 “Russian Navy Expert Team’s Analysis on the Cheonan Incident”, The Hankyoreh, 27 July 2010.

© CNRS Éditions, 2015

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