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    Korea
     Jan 31, 2009
Pyongyang oversteps the mark
By Donald Kirk

SEOUL - Suddenly, the rhetoric between North and South Korea has taken on crisis proportions.

First, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak warned on Thursday that the country must "counter worse conditions to come". Then on Friday came a declaration from North Korea that it had scrapped a longstanding "reconciliation, non-aggression" agreement with the South.

Under the agreement the North cannot venture south of the Northern Limit Line set by the United Nations Command after the Korean War as the no-go barrier in the West or Yellow Sea.

Its as though Lee's government is under siege from all sides, and

 
struggling to deal with the double-whammy of an economy caught up in the global economic crisis amid increasingly precipitous threats from the North.

Now the question is whether North Korea's temper tantrums will be translated into action. This would most likely begin in the Yellow Sea where North and South Korean vessels faced off in bloody battles in June 1999 and again in June 2002.

Certainly North Korea would like to give the impression that it's spoiling for a fight, and ready to send its warships across the line or storm an island in the sea that South Korea has held since the Korean War.

What else is one to think after reading the North's declaration that everything in the 1992 agreement on political and military confrontation between the North and South, "will be nullified" and citing just one example, that of "the points on the military boundary line in the West Sea".

While the latest North Korean outburst was reverberating around the Blue House, the center of presidential power and the defense ministry, all appeared calm on both sides of the Northern Limit Line. A marine officer told Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, that troops were on "elevated vigil" on Yeonpyeong Island, which lies a few kilometers south of the westernmost shores of North Korea and 85 kilometers west of the South Korean port of Incheon.

He said he saw no sign of North Koreans stirring the waters on a calm winter's day.

The widespread impression here is the North Korean outpouring is another bid to get the attention of US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while they're preoccupied with the Middle East.

American nods toward North Korea gave the impression of fleeting, pro forma concern - and confidence that a little old-time diplomacy would, as usual, put out the flames.

While Obama gladly gave an interview to al-Arabiya TV, telling the Arab world that Americans were not their enemies, he left it to his spokesman to say that his boss sees "the urgency in dealing with a very important issue of nuclear proliferation".

"Very important" indeed. Obviously North Korea wants the White House to give it a higher rating than that, but Secretary Clinton hardly improved on matters when she said, "We are going to pursue steps that we think are effective."

She has already endorsed the process of six-party talks, stymied late last year on the issue of verification of whatever the North is doing to disable its nuclear complex, but was coy on bilateral talks, which everyone assumes would be just fine by the new administration.

"I think I will leave it at that," she said, dodging the issue.

Could it be that the North Korean gesture of seemingly scrapping the 1992 agreement - and by inference the 1991 agreement on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula - was Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's way of pleading for more attention than he and his policies are getting from Washington?

According to that theory, North Korea would calm down if the United States would just agree to form diplomatic relations - and then negotiate a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953.

Kim Jong-il himself, whatever his physical condition, was apparently eager to show his desire for peace and tranquility in a recent meeting with the senior Chinese official, Wang Jiarui, the first foreign visitor he's seen since he was reported to have suffered a stroke in August.

North Korea is not only committed to "the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula", he assured the visitor, as reported by Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, but hopes "to coexist peacefully with other involved parties". In consultation with China, he was quoted as saying, North Korea is "willing to push forward the six-party talks".

In that context, North Korea's threats against the South seem like a "fight-talk" strategy - with the fear of hostilities prompting China and the US to agree to a flurry of concessions. These could range from anything from a new understanding on the West Sea to acceptance of the reality that North Korea is not going to get rid of its nukes.

If hostilities are really to break out, the most likely time would be during the spring crabbing season, the period in which North Korean fishing boats are most anxious to challenge South Korea for waters patrolled by South Korean vessels, as they did in 1999 and 2002.

Another incident - or even a prolonged series of gunfights - is the most palpable danger posed by the North Korean statement. Otherwise a look at the 1992 agreement shows how the futility of all the diplomacy that went into negotiating it.

From promises not to engage in slander or interfere in the internal affairs of either side to pledges to negotiate any problems and permit free correspondence, movement and visits, the agreement is one of the most ignored if not violated deals ever reached between two governments.

The sentence that counts the most, though, is the one that says the sides "shall not undertake armed aggression against each other". Just what North Korea means by abandoning that vow remains far from certain despite the comfortable view that North is putting on a show - one that has little to do with the daily lives of most people in South Korea.

President Lee, a former business leader, has upset North Korea by his conservative demands for the North abandoning its pursuit of nuclear warheads to human rights for North Korea's citizens, notably its 200,000 political prisoners. North Korea has said it won't give up its warhead program even if it opens diplomatic relations with the US.

Lee may be able to withstand personal attacks on him as a "traitor", but he is having more trouble coping with a flagging economy in which unemployment is rising, small and medium-sized factories and firms are going bankrupt and the gross domestic product is forecast to rise this year by only 1% or 2% at best.

While "doubts about unstable economic conditions will continue to spread", he has said, "we must not dwell on numbers but set up thorough measures".

With that goal in mind, the government is hoping a vast public works program, and an infusion of funding from the Bank of Korea, will buttress construction firms that traditionally employ most day laborers, which are most vulnerable as companies downsize.

But what will happen as global markets on which such large companies as Hyundai Motor and Samsung Electronics depend dry up. Hyundai Motor has already reduced production, and Samsung has announced losses for the first time in its history.

"The underpaid, part-time sector will be hit first," said a senior finance official. "Our people are talking about political leadership to manage economic downfall."

North Korea, despite its own economic desperation, may find the timing just right to exploit class and economic rivalries in South Korea by turning threats into realities. Then again, South Korea could find a shootout in the West Sea just what it needs to distract public attention from problems on shore.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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