Asia Briefing N°130 1 Dec 2011
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A year after North Korea shelled an island in the South, killing four people, relations on the peninsula remain tense. South Korea has stepped up its warnings of tough retaliation in the case of further attacks and has frozen most political and economic ties. While Pyongyang has made some efforts to restart talks, it has refused to apologise for the attack and has kept up a torrent of abuse against President Lee Myung-bak, who in turn has maintained his tough line. But the political atmosphere in the South is changing as it enters an election season, with the mood shifting towards a more conciliatory position, including renewed interest in a peace zone in the Yellow Sea.
The shelling of Yŏnp’yŏng Island on 23 November 2010 came just eight months after the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. An international investigation concluded that a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine sunk the Ch’ŏnan, a corvette-class patrol ship, killing 46 sailors in South Korean waters. The North Korean government denies responsibility and claims the shelling of Yŏnp’yŏng Island, which killed two civilians and two marines, was an act of self-defence. Although Pyongyang has asked for unconditional dialogue since January 2011, the disputed maritime area in the Yellow Sea remains a flashpoint that could trigger a new conflict.
South Korean officials have repeatedly stated that any further attacks would be met with a firm response. The rules of engagement have been changed so that rather than limiting retaliation to the same type of weapon used in the attack, the South will use whatever force it deems necessary, including air strikes. Instead of following the earlier patterns of provocations and ensuing attempts at compromise, Lee warned the North there would be no reconciliation until they apologised.
Lee has stuck to that position but the political sands are shifting under his feet as he approaches his last year in office. Polling and recent election results show that the South is seeing a drift leftward, part of a normal cycle of change in a democratic country but also a sign, to some extent, of dissatisfaction with Lee’s policies and their failure to deliver any tangible results in relations with the North. That may lead to a significant rethinking of security policy and engagement with the country’s neighbour, including greater efforts to develop solutions to the issue of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the disputed Yellow Sea military demarcation line between the Koreas.
Elections for the National Assembly will be held in April 2012 followed by the presidential poll in December. Public opinion seems to be swinging away from the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) but opposition victories and a radical shift in policy towards the North are far from certain. Other issues such as education costs, government regulation, social welfare, employment and economic performance are much more important to the average voter than foreign policy, national security issues or North Korea. Furthermore, the electoral environment is volatile. Many Koreans are seeking change and a new face but no politician has capitalised yet on this underlying sense of unease with the status quo.
North-South relations have played a role in past polls: both sides have attempted to use insecurity to influence results. The deep rage that the North feels against Lee and his party raises the risk of a pre-election provocation. Although voters tend to favour more hawkish policies at times of insecurity, the right in the South is facing the paradox that voters may blame Lee’s tough line for the increased tensions. Threat perceptions in the South are complex: much of the noise that emanates from the North is discounted, but a hard line from the South can raise anxieties. However, a major provocation from the North – another attack, a missile launch or a nuclear test – would have an impact on the South and the region.
The South Korean president has strong executive powers over national security and North Korea policy. Whoever follows Lee, there are bound to be policy adjustments, but the new president may be constrained by opposition control of the National Assembly. However, electoral victories by the Democratic Party (DP) or a leftist coalition could lead to significant changes in policy towards Pyongyang. In that case, one issue likely to be affected is the NLL. The rival claims over this area are unlikely to be solved in any easy or quick manner so in order to reduce tensions in the area it may be time to look for new options. Some prominent DP politicians, advisers, scholars and others on the left are seeking to revive former President Roh Moo-hyun’s vision of establishing a peace zone in the waters surrounding the NLL.
If a major North Korean provocation precedes next year’s elections, the issue of the northern neighbour and how to manage it could rise to the top of the electoral agenda. The North Korean leadership could calculate that rising tensions will push the South Korean electorate towards candidates who favour a more conciliatory policy. Pyongyang primarily would like to see a restoration of the engagement policy that included generous economic assistance. However, a renewed appeasement policy towards the North likely would include security issues that would impact the U.S.-South Korea alliance and other countries in the region.
Seoul/Brussels, 1 December 2011