Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Trouble in the East Asian Seas

There has been a lot of drama in East Asia in the past few months, shifting international attention from environmental and economic concerns to fears of deepening tensions between rivals and military confrontation.

First North Korea torpedoes a South Korean ship off its coast and kills forty-something sailors. This incident is one of the worst military provocations on the Korean peninsula since the Korean War. Obviously, this significantly sours the North-South relationship, and South Korea threatened to stop trade with its neighbor. China was put into a quandary. After all, it traditionally has been one of North Korea's only allies. However, with the U.S.'s and the U.N's strong support of South Korea, China could not easily defend the rogue nation. Therefore, it remained "on the fence," trying to ameliorate the situation with no success.

The situation took an almost childish turn in which South Korea stating that it would re-designate North Korea as its "archenemy." China, on the other hand, faced mounting pressure to make Kim Jung Il face responsibility for the events. Trying to be objective, the Prime Minister of China offered his condolences to South Korea while cautiously not directly accusing any actor for the sinking of the ship.

Meanwhile, North Korea fervently denied any involvement with the sinking and threatened military action if it received a U.N. condemnation. The North Korean ambassador to the U.S. stated, "our people and army will smash our aggressors." I don't underestimate North Korea's ability to take rash actions, but it's not like they have never faced U.N. pressures before.

The U.S. and South Korea began naval drills on the coast of the Korean peninsula. These drills involved over 8,000 personnel and 200 aircraft. Then the two sides go back and forth, with North Korea threatening retaliatory action. It seized a South Korean ship and fired rounds into a disputed sea border. It seemed like direct military confrontation was inevitable.

Then, in a sudden turn of events, North Korea freed the detained ship and South Korea suggested a reunification of families that were separated by the Korean War. It also agreed to send flood relief aid to the North. North Korea then proposed military talks to settle some border disagreements. It seems like tensions are cooling. However, as this one incident wraps up, another one begins.

China and Japan, two other rivals in the region, have begun a spat over the detention of a Chinese captain who had sailed into a disputed area between the two countries. The island in question is called Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyu by the Chinese. China is arguing that Japanese officials do not have jurisdiction to prosecute the man. Now China is refusing to talk to Japan during the U.N. meeting. I don't think there has been conflict on this level between the two countries since the controversy a few years ago over the publication of Japanese textbooks that did not fully explain Japan's part in the atrocities of World War II.

Wow, so there are still a lot of problems in the region. China and Korea have deep-rooted anger towards Japan for historical reasons. The two Koreas struggle to find a way to coexist. The U.S. backs South Korea and Japan militarily. China tries to balance its alliances but has to keep supporting North Korea. North Korea, meanwhile, is trying to sort out the succession of Kim Jong Il's son. The world waits with bated breath to see the conclusion of this power transition. Each country tries to become the regional hegemon. In a way, it kind of sounds like some kind of soap opera, doesn't it?

It's also really difficult because of the range of political and economic systems in the region. South Korea and Japan are both capitalist and democratic. North Korea is an enclosed communist nation in which a dictator rules with an iron fist. China economically, is teetering between its past socialist roots and its capitalist future, while remaining essentially a totalitarian state.

Any predictions as to what will happen? I really don't see any military conflict happening in the near future, thank goodness. I also don't see reunification happening between the Koreas for at least a decade. The succession in North Korea will probably occur smoothly and I doubt the new leader will make any visible changes to foreign policy. Japan and China will get over this incident because they are big trading partners and sometimes economics trumps politics. So, in my opinion the region will remain in this standstill for now.


  1. I like how North Korea says "We will crush you!" and South Korea says that they'll make North Korea enemy number one, as opposed to just enemy, as opposed to do they actually have a ranked list of enemies? To be fair, the US's axis of evil stopped making sense after the second world war when the enemies stopped being tangent to each other.

    I agree that nothing is likely to come of this, though it would sum the current situation. North Korea is continuing to seek attention at the cost of innocent lives. South Korea is precarious but well defended. Japan is a strong economy that has reach a plateau, personal opinion. But China is interesting because their new social position will change the political environment. China is a world power and becoming the dominant force, especially in East Asia, so it will be interesting to see what stance they in particular take with something like North Korea. Also, I hope as well that the Koreas unite because firstly the people of North Korea are in a rough state with constantly worsening lives and then people on both sides being separated must be miserable.

  2. Hahah, Aaron, good point in your first paragraph. I want to see the list!

    Molly, posting at 6:33 AM? Do you really get up that early? Are you insane?

    Anyway, I'll take a shot at predictions:

    China slowly becomes aware of it's newly built muscle and moves away from it's traditional position of respecting national sovereignty. That's going to mean more international conflicts (big and small), as well as less incentive to back N.K.

    N.K. and S.K. are going to continue beefing into the next half-century when N.K. finally falls from economic pressure. S.K. will rush in to help, as well as plant their culture and ideas all around. Tensions will exist in the country as many of the's will become unskilled laborers and stuck in a poverty cycle. S.K. people will move past the 1980's clothing style that they love so very much and stop making terrible K-pop.

  3. Do you really think NK will collapse from economic pressure? It seems like the leaders really do not care that the people are continually starving, and the people are not empowered enough to revolt. Also, I believe economic sanctions will not work for N.K. because other nations know that the citizens are really the ones that will be hurt. For example, SK and China keep sending aid to NK. Anyways, China is afraid of an imploding NK because that may mean a stream of refugees into China.

  4. I agree with your analysis Molly. I don't think the Chinese would let NK collapse, but I would add that NK is definitely not in control of its future. Their search for nuclear weapons, huge military, small skirmishes with neighbors, all seem like desperation. I found this article about China increasing investments in NK, and to me this signals that China believes NK is going to remain stable. There may be some political activity concerning NK's leadership, but I think China will, sadly, not allow the Koreas to reunify, whether through direct intervention, indirectly puppeteering NK's government, or through increasing influence on NK's policy in the future. In my opinion, the ball is in China's court, not NK's or SK's.

    As someone who's visited China and probably talked some politics with people there, how would you describe NK from their viewpoint? I feel that it would be different from an American viewpoint for example.

    (Council on Foreign Relations: China is probably going to transition the state from protectorate to satellite, puppet government, or

  5. It seems like Chinese people pity North Koreans. Obviously they don't condemn their totalitarian government like Americans do since China did have a similar system in the past, though of course it is liberalizing now. My cousin had a chance to visit North Korea as part of his job in environmental engineering and he said it was really sad, everything was so cheap there. Literally most things cost pennies for him.

  6. Sorry to post on an older note, but do you think it would be possible for a coalition of countries - Communist, Democratic, and other - could make North Korea a social responsibility project? They could liberalize the country, leave it independent, and have open relations with it. They may not not unite with South Korea but at least opening up the country would allow families to see each other, the North Koreans could have more control over their well-being, and quality of life could improve.

  7. Hmm...I'm not sure how this would work without completely taking over the sovereignty of NK? I don't think Kim Jung Il or his son would be happy to sit back while a coalition of nations takes control and liberalize the country. After all, then they would lose their iron grasp over their citizens.

    Also, I don't know which nations would jump at the chance to take on NK as a project. I mean, Americans are already angry at the government for going into the Middle East. China doesn't really want a heavier burden than it already does.

  8. Sorry, it's been a while. The situation in NK, and I don't mean sending the cast of Jersey Shore to NK (though someone brought that up earlier today which reminded me of this), but the North Korean government is an environmental risk to global politics as it slowly erodes and intensifies its poverty and cultural separation from the world, making it an imminent threat for neighboring countries. I guess the sentiment when I wrote the earlier post was that neighboring countries should broker a deal with each other and NK before NK becomes a problem. Though I agree, it is unlikely.