North Korea: The Risks of War in the Yellow Sea
23 Dec 2010
The sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and artillery attack against a South Korean island highlight that stability on the peninsula is threatened by more than the nuclear issue. A resumption of talks to address maritime delimitation and confidence-building measures – within the context of recalibrated deterrence – are needed to avoid further deterioration towards conflict.
North Korea: The Risks of War in the Yellow Sea , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the heightened tensions between the two Koreas and the serious dangers they pose for the region. Measures must urgently be adopted to reduce the possibility of all-out war. The disputed nature of the maritime boundary, the Northern Limit Line (NLL), and the unpredictability of Pyongyang politics have substantially increased volatility.
“Relations between the two Koreas are at their worst point in more than a decade, with much of the progress of recent years undone”, says Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia Deputy Project Director. “In the South, impatience with Pyongyang is growing, and there are demands from the right in Seoul for more robust terms of military engagement in the event of future clashes”.
The NLL, drawn up after the Armistice of 1953, has never been recognised by the North. The disputed aspect of the line, the economic importance of the area, the ambiguities of the rules of engagement and the long history of violent confrontations have made it a flashpoint for conflict. Recently, the North appears to have heightened tensions as part of a transition in power from Kim Jong-Il, the sickly 68-year-old leader, to his son, Kim Jong-un.
The restoration of robust deterrence is necessary yet not sufficient to prevent conflict. Having failed to agree on a maritime boundary, the two Koreas should submit the issue for arbitration through the International Court of Justice or a tribunal under the framework of the UN Law of the Sea Conventions.
Washington should make it clear to Seoul that the NLL is not a maritime boundary, and that the two parties must seek a peaceful resolution of this dispute in accordance with international law. Furthermore, the United States must continue to fulfil its alliance commitments and emphasise that military attacks will not be tolerated. At the same time, Washington and Seoul must be prepared to engage Pyongyang and return to the Six-Party Talks. Beijing should advocate publically and privately for North Korea not to launch further attacks against South Korea. And Seoul should accept international arbitration to delimit territorial waters in the area.
Much effort has been invested over nearly two decades to address North Korea’s nuclear program, and although those efforts should continue, the threat of conventional conflict on the peninsula cannot be ignored. Confidence-building measures are urgently needed to reduce this risk. At a minimum, the two Koreas should: uphold previous agreements that provide for non-aggression and peaceful dispute settlement (The Basic Agreement); not conduct live fire drills in the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea; re-establish the radio communications channel severed by the North on 27 May 2010; and re-establish the inter-Korean military committee as stipulated by the Basic Agreement and reaffirmed by the Defence Ministers in 2007.