The rising tension between the Democratic Republic of Korea, or North Korea, and its southern neighbour the Republic of Korea, or South Korea, amounts to the latest among many standoffs over 60 years, but this one involves certain new factors in addition to several older ones. Among the more familiar reasons are the annual United States-South Korean naval exercises, which last two months and this year are to conclude at the end of April; they always cause ill-feeling between Pyongyang and Seoul. Another reason is the DPRK’s wish to be recognised as a nuclear-weapon power, not least because Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is only following his father and grandfather, the country’s previous two leaders, in seeing nuclear weapons as “the nation’s life,” the phrase the ruling Workers’ Party used in a March 31 resolution. The third familiar factor is that North Korea has never accepted the maritime boundary the South drew in the Yellow Sea at the time of the 1953 armistice which ended the Korean War.
The current contretemps, however, contains potentially dangerous new elements. The U.S. has flown B-2 stealth bombers across the Korean Peninsula, and has placed missile interceptors on the Pacific island of Guam, in apparent response to South Korean reports that Pyongyang had placed missiles near the border between the two countries. Secondly, the North has ended the armistice, and its military says it has been authorised to attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons. This might be technically implausible, but one of the greatest risks of destabilisation lies in the DPRK’s withdrawal from a hotline network; there also seem to be no direct links between Pyongyang and Washington, and the DPRK has made no response to U.S. contacts through senior envoys. Yet that is not rejection, because Mr. Kim wants direct contact with President Barack Obama. Although the U.N. Security Council has repeatedly condemned North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and demanded the immediate revocation of its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the utility of such an approach some seven years after the DPRK first went nuclear perhaps needs to be examined. North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons and will ratchet up its rhetoric and force posture whenever the calls for it to do so are stridently repeated. The country, nevertheless, appears not to want war, and even the ROK’s defence minister Kim Kwan-jin says there is no sign of Northern troop mobilisation. If there is a clear message in the situation, it is that the sooner the U.S. starts talking directly with the DPRK the better the chances will be of lasting détente in the region.