Tensions on the Korean Peninsula

Mar 27, 2011 No Comments

By Chasel Lee

From the fiscal crises in Ireland and Greece to the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, American newspapers and televisions have recently featured exciting and serious international stories. Don’t let old stories get out of sight and out of mind. You may recall that not so long ago a puzzling flare-up in North Korea captured American attention.  On November 23, 2010, the North Korean military shelled Yeonpyeong Island, an inhabited island in a disputed region of the North-South border. The barrage killed at least five people and destroyed several buildings, forcing the evacuation of the island.

Although this was the first shelling since the 1970s, it is by no means an isolated incident.  Officially, the two Koreas are still at war, facing off along the most militarized border in the world, one of the last relics of the Cold War. Propaganda leaflets, loudspeakers, artillery shells, and occasionally men and submarines have crossed the border numerous times since the first incident.

What, then, does this have to do with the United States? In the 1950s, we fought the Korean War there and suffered massive casualties—South Korea still hosts an entire American Army division. Yet, is American involvement a done deal? Should South Korea finally fend for itself?

For one, the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement leaves the United States legally obligated to defend South Korea. But in some ways, aren’t we also morally obligated to defend a vibrant, if somewhat messy, democracy in East Asia and a reliable partner in trade? What nation does the United States become when it abandons its promises and friends?

But American policy on the Korean Peninsula need not be all about the military. From the Korean War onwards, especially after its industrialization in the 1970s and democratization in the late 1980s, South Korea, devastated from years of Japanese colonization and endless war, created one of the largest economies in the world and became one of America’s strongest trading partners, with bilateral trade reaching $67 billion in 2009. With a free trade pact between the two nations currently under ratification by the two nations, trade and economic linkage will only increase. Our nation’s policy might extends beyond South Korea’s economy; in President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, he repeatedly mentioned South Korea’s advanced technological and educational infrastructure as one we should emulate. South Korea is a world leader, with electronic technology, ships, and culture as its biggest exports.

Meanwhile, North Korea has slowly stagnated and disintegrated, with a sŏn’gun, or military first policy, prioritizing the military above all other national affairs. It has a nascent nuclear weapons program, created in the midst of poverty and backwardness. The nation is filled with fallowed fields and decrepit factories that has left it highly reliant on foreign aid from South Korea and China. Its Juche ideology, the prevailing political thought in the North, emphasizes self-reliance, isolating the nation from the rest of the world. In the midst of all of this, North Korea faces a potential leadership change as current leader Kim Jong-il ails away among his movie collection and lavish furnishings. His reputed successor and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, in his twenties and little-known, has little time to consolidate power. This power transition has been linked to numerous skirmishes along the North-South border, including the hito November 23rd. In an attempt by the younger Kim to assert his position as next in line to the throne, tensions between the two Koreas have been rising.

Some may wonder why the United States meddles in the affairs of other nations. Faced with a threat not only to our interests, but also to an economically and globally vital region and our allies there, the United States must remain committed to maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula and faithful to our allies.

Spring 2011 For. Pol. Issue

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