Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Still Enemies

A North Korean ship and South Korean ship faced off in a bit of armed violence yesterday (10 November). Now, this was far from the resumption of Korean War-like hostilities, but the spat is interesting for what it means: North and South Korea are still enemies.

The hostilities took place about 11 kilometers east of Daecheong Island, marked by the red 'X' in the upper-left corner of the image.

Some analysts point out that this is probably an attempt by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (DPRK) to demand US attention just ahead of Obama's trip to East Asia, which begins this Thursday. Although this may be true, the very fact that the Koreas are able to exchange fire means something about the potential for Korean relations in the near- to mid-term future. Whether or not there is diplomatic positioning involved, if both sides are still willing to fire on one another, then they still staunchly view one another as enemies.

Although that may seem far from a revelation, the implications for Korean relations and stability in Northeast Asia are important. If North and South Korea cannot get past "enemies" to, at least, "suspicious neighbors", then a true Korean Peninsula peace is still a good distance down the road.

Moreover, if this true, then there are larger consequences for the region. First, China will still be able to control North Korea as a lever in gaining the attention of South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Second, the US and China will still have the Korean tension as a secondary issue of disagreement in the Sino-US relationship, given that the US seeks a denuclearized Korea while China may not necessarily find such an outcome in their favor right now. Third, until that peninsula is at peace, Japan will seriously consider a missile defense shield (via the US), and this is a tense issue in both the Sino-US and Sino-Japanese relationship.

One of these days, the Koreans will stop shooting at one another.

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