Didn’t the Korean War end in 1953?
The Korean War is not over. There is no peace, only a cease-fire, and 2010 saw tensions rise to levels not reached since the early 1990s. Two violent incidents occurred: the 26 March sinking of the ROK corvette Chŏn’an (Cheonan) with the loss of 46 sailors and the 23 November shelling of Yŏngpyŏng (Yeonpyeong) island killing two soldiers and two civilians.
When did the current status quo begin?
In June 2000, President Kim Dae Jung flew to Pyŏngyang, met with Chairman Kim Jong Il, and inaugurated the Sunshine Policy of southern detente towards the north. In October, General Jo
Myong Rok (d. 6 Nov. 2010), number two in the DPRK, met Bill Clinton in Washington, agreed to limit DPRK missile exports, and invited Clinton to Pyŏngyang. Madeleine Albright visited Pyŏngyang two weeks later and met Kim Jong Il. Denouncing these opportunities, the Bush administration shifted from engagement to containment with obvious failure: the DPRK conducted nuclear tests in October 2006 and May 2009. Although the Sunshine Policy ended official demonization of the north and led to northern, non-belligerent attention focused on the south, by 2008, southerners felt triumphalist, had tired of accommodating the north, and elected President Lee Myung-bak to ‘get tough’.
What does the north want?
The north wants normalization with the US and Japan, but US diplomacy is stuck on nuclear issues and Japanese on abductees. The status quo favours the south: the north talks to the south, while the US and Japan promote containment via the six-party talks. The north uses nuclear tests and disputations of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) to draw attention in hopes of changing the status quo. Nuclear weapons also provide deterrence, and the NLL was a UN creation.
What is the NLL?
In 1953, the north relinquished certain islands but contested surrounding seas. Since 1999, Pyŏngyang has openly contested the NLL. The north ‘probably’ torpedoed the Chŏn’an, ‘probably’ in retaliation for previous NLL incidents that killed northern sailors. The DPRK denies responsibility, so we do not know. The north gave its reason for the November shelling: southern live-fire drills from Yŏnpyŏng (even southwards) throw shells into northern waters and violate northern sovereignty. But the DPRK crossed a tacit line when it killed two civilians. Pyŏngyang expressed ‘regret’, while accusing the south of using human shields. In December, the south again held live-fire drills, but the north did not respond.
Over 2010, the north has extracted revenge, grabbed US, Japanese, and southern attention, and developed a ‘revolutionary pedigree’ for the new leader. Now, they want to revive the six-party talks, probably to obtain food aid, but this could be an opportune moment to address normalisation issues and move towards comprehensive peace.