Foreign and Defense Policy, Asia

Will China Help Prevent a Korean War No One Wants?

North Korea fired artillery rounds into South Korea this morning (2:30 p.m. local time), killing two marines and wounding 19 other people, including three civilians. This attack has come on the heels of the revelation of a new, modern North Korean uranium enrichment facility and, of course, follows the torpedoing earlier this year of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel.

As after the Cheonan sinking, South Korean forces responded with cool heads. Though they returned fire, as per their rules of engagement, they took no action to escalate the violence. It was the South Koreans that called for a cease-fire at about 4:00 p.m.

There is now much speculation regarding the North’s motives. Does the attack have something to do with the ongoing leadership transition? Was it a response to South Korean military exercises? Is Kim Jong-Il trying to coax (i.e., coerce) the United States and South Korea back to the six-party talks? It’s difficult to say.

It would certainly be useful to understand Kim’s intentions but, in truth, it doesn’t really matter. What can be said with a high degree of certainty is that Pyongyang will carry out similar provocations in the future and that they will do so regardless of the policies that the United States and South Korea adopt (unless they accede, I suppose, to what amounts to North Korean blackmail). This is a frightening truth, as nobody (especially the North) should assume that cooler heads will always prevail in South Korea. Whether it be President Lee Myung-bak, his successor, or the South Korean population, someone will eventually say, “Enough is enough.” Sooner or later, South Korea will risk a larger war in the hopes of stopping for good the North’s unprovoked attacks.

In order to avoid this eventuality, China will have to start exercising the leverage it has over the Kim regime. And, as I’ve argued previously, China has plenty of leverage. Yet Beijing seems unconcerned with the latest provocation. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei explained that “we hope the relevant parties will do more to contribute to the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.” Specifically in regards to today’s artillery fire, Hong noted that “the situation needs to be verified.”

That is a muted response to what was the first attack of its kind on South Korean soil since the Korean War. Twice this year, North Korea has violated the terms of the 1953 armistice agreement with the South, carrying out what can only be described as acts of war. If China doesn’t use its influence to put a stop to this behavior peacefully, South Korea may have to do so forcefully. We will then be faced with a war on the peninsula that nobody wanted and that nobody will soon forget.

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