North-South Korea tensions: Cold war legacy still a global burden

By Prof. Maragtas S.V. Amante, Hanyang University

Posted at Nov 24 2010 11:15 AM | Updated as of Nov 25 2010 04:25 AM

ANSAN CITY, South Korea - A legacy of the cold war, the North and South Korea conflict of the 1950s, spills over into the 21st century.   The exchange of fire and threats,  with mutual denial of facts and history creates a heavy burden for the younger generation. 

Yet life goes on, business as usual – this is the most common attitude among my Korean students and academic colleagues.  I don’t see people panic buying to hoard food and other supplies. There might be a panic in the airline flight bookings, for people who want to get out of South Korea.  Prices however are stable,  except that the stock and money markets after a “herd mentality” of running  everywhere and nowhere,  should be able to stabilize later.

The latest exchange is not new,  given the history of previous clashes:

  • There were intermittent clashes between North and South Korean warships in 1999 and 2002.
  • In the 2002 exchange of fire, 13 North Korean sailors and five South Korean  sailors were killed.
  • 2008 and 2009:  North Korea tested long range missiles, which failed.  The launches were replayed over and over in many TV stations.  Fears of biochemical warfare added to the tension.
  • 2010:  In March 26,  South Korean warship Cheonan sinks, and 46 sailors died.  North Korea denies involvement.
  • 2010 November:  joint military exercises by the US and South Korea were viewed as a “prelude to invasion”  by the North.

Rhetoric of Cold War

Global headlines and comments on the latest exchange of tensions in Korea show that ideas on the conflict are shackled, or imprisoned by the rhetoric of the cold war, on both sides.  The cold war mind set continues even as new geopolitical realities have emerged.  The Soviet bloc disappeared, but both China and Russia are still major influences on how the US decides on maintaining its influence over the Asia Pacific,  using its military alliance with South Korea and Japan as leverage.   

The tensions added to the stress and worry of Filipinos working in Korea,  as well as their families.  In addition, the Korean won depreciates against the US dollar, and there will be a significant reduction in the value of remittances in peso terms.   Korean companies may have activated contingency plans as well,  and that should include freeze hiring of new foreign workers.  

Pinoys in South Korea

The Philippine Embassy in Seoul says there are 60,000 Filipinos in South Korea.  Many are  young workers in small and medium enterprises in the industrial zones.  In contrast, very few Filipinos are working in North Korea, many as NGO workers are involved in food aid.  The Embassy has circulated an advisory to Philippine groups, with a map of the possible convergence areas if evacuation is deemed desirable when the conflict escalates.

The Philippine Embassy advised Filipinos in Korea that the government will provide for food and lodging in the convergence areas, in case of evacuation.  Transportation from South Korea to the Philippines will also be arranged by plane or ship.  There will be no distinction between documented and undocumented Filipinos.  

After a successful hosting of the G20 summit this month,  South Korea indeed has very limited choices on how to deal with the North over the latest confrontation.  South Korea,  despite being a global leader in science, technology, engineering and business, must still use its diplomatic advantages and create a more innovative solution to the North Korea problem,  beyond the cold war mindset of its current leaders.

Scenarios

What will happen next?  There are several scenarios.  Most probably, life will go on as usual,  just like previous confrontations.  The latest exchange is simply fireworks for an early New Year, according to some Filipino workers who are not worried at all.   The status quo “business as usual” attitude prevails among my Korean students and academic colleagues. 

A few Korean friends believe that North Korea can’t break out into a war at this moment because it is now getting ready for a power succession, and given that Kim Jong Il, the current leader is sick.  A series of recent incidents - the sinking of the Cheonan, the revelation that it has uranium enriching centrifuges, and the sudden bombing on Yeonpyeong Island - are being done on behalf of the heir-apparent, Kim Jong-un, who has still to establish his own power base and track record. 

No all-out military confrontation

The current tensions between the two Koreas would unlikely evolve into an all-out military confrontation.  After the G20 Seoul Summit earlier this month,  South Korea has enormous diplomatic muscle power which it could use as leverage in order to avoid an all out confrontation. 

The results of past confrontations however show that South Korea has limited options.  As usual, there is now a lot of diplomatic activity,  initiated by South Korea’s ambassadors in many countries.  There will be another round of debates and discussions in the UN Security Council, headed by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, a former South Korean foreign minister.  There will be condemnation, and calls for more sanctions.  

North Korea however is already used to diplomatic isolation, condemnations and sanctions.  It has now the capacity to threaten South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons, raising the stakes further. 

Long-term solution

The scenarios will involve confrontation,  peaceful settlement, and status quo.  Many factors are at play:  military balance of power;  the fighting spirit of the people, military and the leaders in both North and South Korea;  the role of China and the US as well as Japan and other neighbors whose interests are for stability and peace in the region;  and the results of diplomacy through the UN and other channels.  

The long term solution – the reunification of North and South Korea – is possible, but both China and Japan may not want to see a strong, united Korea given that all three countries have a load of unsettled historical, geographic and military disputes with each other.

The cold war legacy of the 1950s and the mindset of the political leaders on both sides who are still imprisoned by the cold war mentality remain the major constraint in the peaceful resolution.   The policy of President Lee Myung-bak is not to be “soft and easy” on North Korea.  He reversed the “sunshine policy” of previous liberal administrations, away from rapprochement and engagement which were considered as appeasement.  South Korea however has maintained assistance, trade and family reunions for those separated by the Korean war,  but this must be linked to a nuclear free Korean peninsula.  The reversal of the “sunshine policy” has angered North Korea.  

There are suggestions that internal politics in North Korea is involved in the latest confrontations.   There is now a transition of power from the sick Kim Jong Il to his son, the heir apparent Kim Jung Un who must build his own power base and track record,  to earn the respect of the military elite.   In this case then, any response whether military or diplomatic may not have much effect on isolated, sanctioned North Korea – they have nothing to lose,  but much to gain by rattling the South, escalating the tensions or by going back to the negotiating table for more and more advantages and concessions, until the next confrontation.  The North Koreans certainly are highly skilled in negotiations and hard bargaining – an advantage that need to be overcome or matched by the South. 

Maragtas S.V. Amante is a professor at the College of Economics and Business Administration,  Hanyang University Ansan. He was with the U.P. School of Labor and Industrial Relations in Diliman, Quezon City.  Email:  [email protected]