By Dr. Raja Muhammad Khan

The Korean peninsula shares borders with China and Russia. Japanese colonial rule over Korea prolonged from 1910-1945. During the wartime mobilization of Japan (1937-45), Koreans have been working in Japanese factories and were sent as soldiers to the front lines. During the 35-years, colonial rule, a lot of industrial development took place primarily for the purposes of strengthening Japanese war fighting stamina in the Pacific, rather than to benefit the Koreans. Such uneven and distorted developments left a mixed legacy for the peninsula after the colonial period ended.

In August 1945, Korea was the second-most industrialized nation in Asia after Japan. Following the surrender of Japanese to the Allies in August 1945, disagreement of war victors on a united Korea, split the peninsula into two parts; the South Korea (Republic of Korea) an American occupied zone, and the North Korea, (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) under occupation of former Soviet Union. The Peninsula becomes the first casualty of proxy war between the former Communist and Capitalist camps in 1950.

Inter-Korea war prolonged for three years (1950-1953). The forces of United States supported South Korea and China supported North Korea. Towards the conclusion of war, the death estimates were some three million Koreans, one million Chinese, and 54,000 Americans. Even after the conclusion of this War, Korea remained divided into two mutually antagonistic states, separated by a heavily fortified “De-Militarized Zone” (DMZ).

Both Koreas have been pursuing their clandestine nuclear programmes since late 1960s. Presence of a huge contingent of US forces in South Korea and a big military concentration in Japan has been a huge security concern for North Korea and other regional countries including; former Soviet Union and China. In 1991, once the United States hinted about the likely removal of her forces from Peninsula, North Korea concluded a denuclearization deal with South Korea. It was agreed upon by the two sides, that “they shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons," and that they "shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities." Both countries agreed to form a North-South Joint Nuclear Control Commission (JNCC) with the mandate to verify the denuclearization of the Peninsula. In return, Pyongyang was promised by U.S for the provision of alternative energy resources, sufficient quantity of fuel and light water reactors.  

Refusal to fulfil the promises by U.S and later declaring it as the ‘axis of evil’ provoked North Korea to re-start its clandestine nuclear weapons programme. Subsequently, North Korea exploded its first nuclear device in October 2006 and second in May 2009. Tension between North Korea, U.S and its regional allies; South Korea and Japan substantially increased following its second nuclear blast. With the Six-Party Talks, designed to denuclearize North Korea and bringing stability in this region remaining stalled since 2008, the East Asian region now forming part of the Asia-Pacific, is increasingly getting volatile. There have been border skirmishes and exchange of heavy weapons fire between North and South Korea.

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In March 2010, North Korean Torpedo sunk a South Korean ship in Sea, killing 46 South Korean sailors. On November 23, 2010, North Korean Artillery fire on the front-line island of Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea killed four persons including two civilians and injuring another eighteen. North Korea justified its artillery barrage on the grounds that South Korean military has undertaken battle-drills and show of force in these disputed islands. It is worth mentioning that, South Korea and United States have used the site of Artillery shelling by North Korea for joint naval exercises in last few years. Even after the incident, U.S and South Korea carried out a battle drill, which as per Admiral Mike Mullen reflects, “America's commitment to South Korean's security.”

There has been widespread condemnation of both acts of the North Korea. However, United States and West has been found more critical to the Chinese role than the aggressive acts of North Korea. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stressed upon Chinese leadership to play its role for ending what it called the ‘provocative and reckless’ behaviour of North Korea. United States perhaps consider Chinese location as ‘uniquely placed’ to influence the aggressive acts of North Korea. Admiral Mullen said, “China's leadership has more influence in Pyongyang than any other country –, there's no other country that's close. So the Six-Party Talks might be interesting. But it is going to come out of Beijing that this thing gets taken to a level where we can figure out a way to contain the reckless behaviour and move ahead.”

 Indeed, for the broader regional peace China has earlier called for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, suspended in 2008. Admiral Mullen, however, consider that, the “Beijing's call for consultations will not substitute for action. And I do not believe we should continue to reward North Korea's provocative and destabilizing behaviour with bargaining or new incentives.” These remarks are indeed the reiteration of the statements of US and South Korea.  While this issue remaining unresolved, Japan and United States has started their joint military exercises, “Keen Sword” in southern Japanese waters. These exercises are being participated by approximately 44,000 troops, 60 warships, and 500 aircraft. As per China, this round of new exercises with a huge quantum of combat power and use of high-tech munitions and war ships would be provocative act, leading towards further destabilization of the region.  Instead, diplomacy should have been given a chance to resolve the growing level of tension, without any show of force. Mr. Jiang Yu, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswomen, while commenting on the military drills as, “Brandishing of force cannot solve the issue, some are playing with knives and guns while China is criticized for calling for dialogue, is that fair?”  

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It has been learnt that, South Korea, would be sending a group of military observers in these exercises, indeed, a step, which would lead towards, “tightening U.S. military and political alliances in the region.” In the wordings of the Yoshito Sengoku, the Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary, this is “an important point from the perspective of promoting cooperation among the three countries.” Japan and South Korea are the strategic allies of United States in the region, which perhaps is the root-cause of all provocative actions by North Korea in the Peninsula and wider Asia-Pacific region. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is also scheduled to host a meeting of its East Asian allies on December 6, 2010; to discuss the situation arose after the recent North Korean shelling.

A critical analysis of the situation in the East Asia would lead us towards a realistic future perspective in the regional politics. This indeed is not a new beginning, rather end of cold war and announcement of new world order in early 1990s was its formal start.   As per former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, there is a shift in the centre of gravity of the world from Atlantic to the Pacific. It covers the wider region of the Asia-Pacific and East Asia/ Northeast Asia is forming almost hub of this region. This region is considered as the hub of the future global economic centres, the power projections, and a place of likely future clashes. As the sole super power, U.S would never like its exclusion or relegation from the regional politics of Asia-Pacific. It was because of this reason that US has long maintained its military presence over 80,000 in Japan and approximately 36,000 in South Korea.  Post WW-II and Inter-Korea war, U.S has decided to dominate the regional politics through its former protectorates, now allies. It has not allowed Japan and South Korea to come out from the mindset of colonialism, thrust upon them immediately after WW-II. Today, technologically these countries are highly advance, but militarily they are totally dependent on United States. Under the strategic partnership, U.S provides them all out military support. 

Blaming, China for all the East Asian predicaments either created by the undesired acts of North Korea or through foreign involvement in the regional politics may not be justified.  Why cannot United States and its East Asian allies realize that after all North Korea is an independent and sovereign country and takes independent decisions. It did not take China into confidence, before testing its nuclear devices in October 2006 and May 2009.   It also betrayed Chinese confidence in creating the current fiasco by sinking the South Korean ship and provocative firing on island of Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea. Indeed, North and South Korea are the same people should be allowed to re-unite if the people desire so. Reprimanding China for the ills of others would rather be an act of pushing it to the walls.  U.S has previously done so in mid 1990s, by provoking Taiwan to declare its independence, which has badly failed. Now there is a major shift in the thinking of the Taiwanese to accept the reality that they are the legal citizens of China and Taiwan is its integral part.

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While tracing the history, one would find that China has been a great power, but has never invaded other countries. After attaining great power potentials, this Asian giant has adopted a policy, to promote regional integration of the extended East Asian counties. Being a major military and economic power, China has never posed a threat for its neighbours as well as other regional countries. It rather played a decisive role in the formation of ASEAN plus Three, a group of ten South East Asian countries, China, South Korea, and Japan. It never stressed for the membership of North Korea in this group. China is now following the policy of economic integration and interdependence for a peaceful co-existence of all the regional countries of the East Asia. China believes in the regional security among the regional countries, rather depending on the alliance system, through external powers.

For a durable stability in East Asia, there is a need for the adoption of a regional approach. Outside powers neither would desire nor be able to resolve the local issues. These are pursuing their national interests and at time personal agendas. Apart from the Six-Party Talks, the forum of ASEAN plus Three must be made as an effective platform to settle the differences arising between states.  After shunning the differences, North Korea should also be made part of this forum. U.S would be more respected for promoting peace, rather for launching the misadventures like Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Dr Raja M Khan did his PhD from the university of Karachi. Now he is an Associate Professor at National Defence University, Islamabad. His area of focus is South Asia, Central Asia and the Muslim World. Besides this he also keeps a keen eye on other regional and global issues. He is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.