As November 2010 drew to a close, military tensions had again reached dangerous levels on the Korean peninsula. A south Korean military exercise in disputed waters, conducted with US participation, escalated into the firing of missiles into north Korean territorial waters, which, after several warnings, finally, on 23 November, drew a response from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), resulting in four south Korean fatalities.
In its military exercise, codenamed Hoguk, the south Korean reactionary regime mobilised 70,000 troops, 50 warships, 90 helicopters, 500 warplanes and 600 tanks, joined by the US Marine Corps and the US Seventh Air Force, in what DPRK spokesmen aptly described as a “rehearsal for an invasion” of their country.
Moreover, the United States and south Korea chose to centre this provocative exercise on Yeonpyeong island, which, in the words of the New York Times, “sits just two miles from the Northern Limit Line, the disputed sea border which the north does not recognise, and only eight miles from the north Korean coast”. (US to send carrier for joint exercises off Korea by David E Sanger, 23 November 2010)
Whilst a land border between the two parts of Korea was agreed in the armistice signed by the DPRK and the United States on 27 July 1953, no agreement was reached between the two sides regarding a maritime border. The United States unilaterally imposed a so-called Northern Limit Line (NLL) months later, but this has never been recognised by the DPRK, which, in turn, has defined its own maritime borderline. Previous clashes have taken place in the region in 1999, 2002 and 2009.
Under such circumstances, missiles fired into the sea from Yeonpyeong island cannot fail to enter and land in the sovereign, territorial waters of the DPRK, an act of aggression, indeed of war, in international law.
Even a careful study of the bourgeois press shows without any doubt that it was the DPRK that was the victim of aggression, rather than the other way round.
For example, according to an Associated Press report:
“The skirmish began Tuesday when north Korea warned the south to halt military drills near their sea border … When Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters…the north retaliated by shelling the small island of Yeonpyeong …” (‘Tensions high as North, South Korea trade shelling’, 23 November 2010)
The south Korean newspaper, The Hankyoreh, carried a similar report:
“Prior to the incident the south Korean military carried out a firing exercise … in the (disputed) area around Yeonpyeong Island and Baengnyeong Island … North Korea sent a message Tuesday morning that it would not tolerate firing in its territorial waters.” (‘President Lee has changed his position from controlled response to manifold retaliation’, 24 November 2010)
The New York Times noted that south Korean “artillery units had been firing from a battery on the south Korean island of Baeknyeongdo, close to the north Korean coast” and that “the south acknowledged firing test shots in the (disputed) area”. (Op cit)
Yet, despite the clear evidence presented even by their own media, the imperialist powers are unanimous in seeking to pin the blame on the DPRK, and in using this incident to increase military, diplomatic and economic pressure on the country, as well as on the People’s Republic of China, which on the one hand is being called on to pressurise the DPRK into meekly following imperialist diktat, whilst on the other hand being itself directly targeted by heightened imperialist military activity in an area which directly borders China as well as the DPRK.
(It should be noted that, even if China wished the DPRK to simply bow to imperialist pressure and surrender its sovereignty, dignity and socialist system, which is not the case, it would still be a pipedream because, whilst China and the DPRK are indeed close friends, the DPRK is a sovereign country, which values its independence above everything and does not take orders from Beijing or any other foreign capital.)
British imperialism is also playing a criminal role in this latest heightened attempt to pressurise the DPRK. Foreign secretary William Hague, fully supported by his Labour opposite number Yvette Cooper, accused the DPRK of an “unprovoked attack”. This is no different from the Hitlerian logic, according to which Nazi Germany was the victim of an “unprovoked attack” by Czechoslovakia.
Faced with the DPRK’s resolute response to aggression and threats, the US and its allies are busy scrabbling around for a response and in so doing are raising tensions to even greater heights. Even before the 23 November clashes, the south Korean defence minister, who has now been forced to resign, mooted the open redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons to the south Korean mainland, from where they were supposedly withdrawn in 1991.
South Korea, once again breaking its own previous promises not to use humanitarian issues as political bargaining chips, broke off negotiations with the north aimed at arranging reunions among family members divided between north and south and halted all humanitarian aid to the north. Such humanitarian aid had, in any case, all but ceased under the right-wing regime of Lee Myung Bak, so the only effect was to block a paltry amount of aid pledged by the south Korean Red Cross following devastating floods in parts of the north earlier this year.
Whilst considering intensified sanctions, Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell ruefully remarked: “It’s hard to pile more sanctions upon the north than are already there.” (Quoted in ‘N Korea attack fuels retaliation fears’, Financial Times, 24 November 2010)
But in the words of Choi Choon-heum of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a south Korean government think tank: “Unless China actively imposes sanctions on north Korea, the sanctions are meaningless.” (Quoted in ‘Washington refuses to change tack’, Financial Times, 23 November 2010)
In response, therefore, the United States and south Korea began a huge new naval exercise on 28 November, in waters adjacent to both the DPRK and China, including those that China considers as part of its exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Law of the Sea. These exercises involve the 97,000 ton, nuclear-powered USS George Washington, which carries 75 fighter jets and has a crew of over 6,000, along with at least four other US warships, with south Korea deploying three destroyers, frigates and anti-submarine aircraft.
On the one hand, this vast war exercise is presented as being in ‘response’ to the DPRK’s artillery shelling on 23 November. However, both the US and south Korean militaries stated that the latest exercise was “planned well before” that date. South Korean military sources added that the naval drill would be “more intensive” than originally planned, as participating troops will conduct live-fire shooting and bombing exercises.
Clearly, under such a scenario, it is all too easy to graduate from war gaming to actual conflict, whether by accident or design.
Speaking two days before the latest exercises commenced, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said: “We hold a consistent and clear-cut stance on the issue. We oppose any party taking any military actions in our exclusive economic zone without permission.”
Major General Luo Yuan of the People’s Liberation Army’s Military Science Academy, said: “The United States and south Korea should not take sensitive and provocative military actions at such a sensitive time and place. Just like pouring oil onto flames, the US-south Korean action will heighten tension in the Korean peninsula.” (Quoted in ‘China opposes any military acts in exclusive economic zone without permission’, Xinhua, 26 November 2010)
US imperialism’s desperate attempts to find a way out of its insoluble crisis are leading it ever further down the road of militarism and war. In continuing to “pour oil onto flames”, as Major Luo aptly put it, the US would be well advised to remember another well-known Chinese saying: “He who plays with fire will get burned.”