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