What is happening on the Korean peninsula?

As anyone who studies international relations will appreciate (I’m still doing a Wednesday evening class in the subject at the City Literary Institute in London), things are always more complicated than they seem at first sight.

North Korea’s attack on the island of Yeonpyeong is provocative and unjustified. It is arguably the most serious incident since the end of the Korean War in 1953 because it targeted land and it involved the death of civilians.

But some factors should be borne in mind:

  • Although the Korean War ended on 27 July 1953 with a truce, there was no formal peace treaty, meaning that technically the two Koreas have remained at war throughout the intervening period.
  • There are repreated clashes between the two Koreas but most of the time these are not reported in the world’s media. The most serious recent incident – which was, of course, comprehensively reported – was the sinking of the “Cheonan”,  something on which I blogged here.
  • Although the 38th parallel is a well-established dividing line between North and South Korea on land, the maritime demarcation in the Yellow sea has never been recognised by North Korea since it was imposed in 1953.
  • Although North Korea was in no way attacked by the South this week, there were live-fire exercises conducted by the South very close to the North which the Communist regime took to be a provocation or perhaps an excuse to fire artillery shells at Yeonpyeong.

Of course, North Korea is such an opaque regime, riddled with power factions at the best of times and currently in the middle of a leadership transition, so the real reasons for this week’s action can only be the subject of guesswork.

Restraint from all parties is clearly desirable, but only China has any real influence on North Korea and it is unclear how strong that influence is in practice.

Some background here.


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