BEIJING — The volatile inter-Korean situation warrants the two countries establishing a means of communication to prevent miscalculations, and the longer the tensions persist the bigger the potential for these, said John Swenson-Wright of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a think tank on international affairs in the United Kingdom, commonly known as “Chatham House.”
In the aftermath of North Korea’s attack on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea is seen to be moving as others would expect in such a situation; it’s becoming increasingly hardline against its intractable northern neighbor and ramping up its military deterrent. Vowing stern retaliation, new Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said he would order an air strike against the North if it attacked with artillery again.
But the British security expert, who also teaches at Cambridge University, advised South Korea to reconsider the common wisdom. “While deterrence needs to be strong, diplomacy also needs a second chance,” said Swenson-Wright. Swenson-Wright knows that his advice might be unpopular in South Korea, given that the nation is still reeling from North Korea’s artillery barrage of Yeonpyeong, amid the public’s demand that the government get tougher on North Korea.
His advice would be politically risky in South Korea’s domestic politics too as leaders rely on popular votes. A survey conducted by Hankook Research, two weeks before the Yeonpyeong attack, found 31.9 percent of respondents said they think the North is their enemy, which is a steep increase compared to five years ago when only 15.3 percent of respondents said so. In the aftermath of the Yeonpyeong incident, now even more South Koreans are likely to think so.
Even President Lee Myung-bak, who was seen trying to contain the situation by ordering the military “to make an effort not to escalate the situation,” last week frustratingly said to the public, to the effect, that he now sees little use in engaging North Korea. “(I) now have come to realize that it’s no longer sensible to expect North Korea to give up its military adventurism and nuclear weapons,” Lee said. His statement was widely seen as a “turning point” by Lee to ditch diplomacy and instead apply more sanctions and pressure against the North.
Swenson-Wright is careful not to underestimate such sentiment in South Korea. “I appreciate it’s politically difficult for President Lee to say we should open a dialogue with North Korea,” he said. Given Pyongyang’s actions, offering dialogue also risks giving the appearance of rewarding the communist country for bad behavior, which Seoul wants to avoid at all costs. But the volatile situation warrants diplomacy more than at any other time and South Korea could use, if needed, “under the table” diplomacy to manage the crisis, which doesn’t have to be dictated by public sentiment, said Swenson-Wright. “The door can be open, but it doesn’t have to be public.”
President Lee’s popularity has dropped since the Yeonpyeong attack to just barely over 40 percent as people were disappointed with the way his government handled the crisis. His critics said Lee was “not tough enough” against the North’s belligerence. Swenson-Wright’s analysis is different from how Lee’s domestic critics see things in South Korea. “I wonder what those critics are actually arguing for, beyond what’s been done so far. It would be difficult to imagine what further steps taken that would have been more effective in terms of sending signals to North Korea without materially and substantially increasing the risks involved. So, I don’t share the criticism. “It’s very important that the rhetoric used by the President itself doesn’t contribute to the escalation of tension,” said Swenson-Wright.
In the same vein, he doesn’t agree with former South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, who stepped down amid controversy over how the military responded to the North’s attack. Kim called for the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea. “Such a statement, while understandable in terms of showing off South Korea’s military capabilities, is unhelpful as it can potentially escalate the tension,” said Swenson-Wright. “We need to avoid that sort of language. The president needs to be very careful to balance any willingness to talk in terms of military action with some language that can hint or suggest the possibility of resumption of dialogue.”
Essentially, the British security expert believes that South Korea should do everything possible to reinforce deterrence, but at the same time, it should also pursue every possible channel to have a venue for dialogue with North Korea to prevent the political rhetoric on both sides from leading to miscalculations at this emotionally volatile time. South Koreans, who have been familiar with various North Korean provocations since the 1950-53 Korean War, tend to downplay the inter-Korean tension as “business as usual.”
But outside analysts see the current situation on the Korean Peninsula as one of the most volatile since the war. A Chinese analyst, Jin Jingyi, compared the recent frequent inter-Korean disputes to the period in 1949 when both Koreas engaged in frequent arms conflicts across the border, which led to a full-scale war the following year. A Russian analyst, Leonid Petrov, sees the current situation as a hardline North Korean government colliding with a hardline South Korea.
Swenson-Wright believes Seoul needs to be creative in trying to find a way to soothe the populist pressure and at the same time find a mechanism to engage Pyongyang for an emergency inter-Korean consultation. “Not engaging North Korea limits the very options available,” he concluded.
East Asia Forum (8 Dec.2010).
Evan Feigenbaum (Adjunct Senior Fellow for East, Central, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations) suspect Seoul will seek to preserve a ladder of escalation in its future responses to North Korean actions: (1) firing at North Korean vessels offshore, as in the past; (2) discrete and limited counterbattery responses to specific sources of North Korean artillery fire; and (3) weighing a wider counterbattery target package only in extremis…