Two serious military incidents around the Korean peninsula have this year involved South Korean fatalities. In the first, the South Korean corvette Cheonan sunk taking 46 sailors down with it on March 26 and the second, the shelling of the South Korean Yeonpyeong island on November 23 resulted in 4 deaths.
Writing from New Zealand I feel a need to ask, how can this small, remote but outward-looking country best assess and respond to such events? Answering this requires a look at wider contexts and diplomatic options or paradigms.
Naturally the antagonistic parties directly concerned, North and South Korea have condemned each other, and while North Korea has no clear international support South Korea has behind it the United States with its regional and wider international allies.
The contemporary context for these events is North Korea’s nuclear development program, the background of which is 60 years of unresolved North-South Korean tensions that go back to the origins of the Cold War.
Like Iran with its nuclear development program, North Korea has been involved in successive rounds of cat-and-mice games with the United States and its supporting states. The United States has taken the lead in applying pressure on what it calls “rogue states” with such programs.
The United States has issued a statement calling “upon the DPRK to cease its provocative and irresponsible actions against its neighbors….”
North Korea in turn has indicated how it feels very impinged upon by large-scale military exercises near its borders, including a South Korean artillery drill that was the occasion for the Ypeongyang shelling. Regarding United States accusations about being “provocative”, North Korea has asked, whether the United States would “stay quiet if artillery was fired off the shores of New York?”
Serious questions have also been raised about accusations that the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. Some websites where these are raised are listed after at the bottom of this blog.
Meanwhile China has acted very circumspectly. It is an historical ally of an adjacent North Korea and it does not want major disruption in its own region that could seriously breach its borders, especially involving potentially massive military intervention by the United States.
China has consequently withheld blame and consulted with interested parties across the board while joining North Korea in seeking a resumption of Six-Party Talks on issues around halting its nuclear development program.
These are talks which began in August 2003 and stalled in April 2009. The six parties are the United States, North and South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia.
New Zealand, situated at the far end of the Pacific from Korea, has twice already acted in relation to Korean conflicts. In each case, its response has reflected its wider relationships and position in the world.
What options or paradigms are now available to it given its history, contemporary relationships, and aspirations?
On the one hand, in the 1950-3 Korean War New Zealand was among the nations that joined the United States-led, United Nations forces against North Korea and China. This coincided also with New Zealand joining with the Americans in the Anzus (Australia, New Zealand and the United States) alliance in 1951. This alignment paradigm would suggest siding now with South Korea and the United States in their condemnation of North Korea.
The roots of a different paradigm were planted on the other hand when in the 1980s New Zealand adopted a nuclear-free policy which prompted the United States to suspend it from Anzus.
All of which in turn helped create ideal credentials for its Labour Government Foreign Minister Winston Peters to engage in November 2007 in nuclear-free liaison between the United States and North Korea to help break through a diplomatic impasse at the time. This remarkable development was strongly supported by both the United States and China.
New Zealand’s nuclear-free credentials, its small, non-threatening size and the flair and professionalism of its Prime Minister Helen Clark and her foreign minister carried the day.
Presently, the United States does not support the resumption of the Six-Party Talks sought by North Korea and China. Instead, the United States is engaging in large-scale military exercises with South Korea and Japan.
Indeed, the United States has also announced talks to be held this week in Washington with Japan and South Korea, but without China, to strategize a response to North Korea’s artillery attack.
China in response continues to stress the need for dialogue. Its Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in an official statement that “We’ll keep a close watch on this meeting” pointed to ways out of the problem when she added:
“As the situation on the Korean peninsula is highly complicated and sensitive, we expect the meeting to ease tensions and promote dialogue, rather than heighten tensions and intensify confrontation.”
“We expect the three countries to take into account regional peace and stability and Korean peninsula denuclearisation and give a positive consideration to China’s proposal for emergency talks”.
It will of course be interesting to see whether that conference moves to help defuse, or escalate, tensions and military threats.
So, how have the present New Zealand National Government and opposition Labour Party responded? The Government has joined the United States (its traditional, nuclear ally), rather than China, in condemning the North Koreans. Its Foreign Minister Murray McCully issued a statement firmly declaring: “New Zealand joins other countries in expressing our sense of outrage over this attack and the consequent loss of life.”
McCully also said “This is a time for cool heads in order to avoid this clash escalating into a more serious threat to the stability of the region.”
The New Zealand Labour Party Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maryan Street has usefully recalled the Labour government’s the nuclear-free diplomacy saying how “New Zealand played an active support role, particularly in pursuit of a nuclear weapons-free region and we should offer to do that again.”
She also expressed support for the Chinese approach, noting how it “is now calling for an urgent meeting of the six powers …” and “we should be lending our support to that call, not simply being outraged.”
I think the right starting point is Mr McCully’s call for “cool heads” to prevent escalation.
I imagine he means what he says. In which case, I would invite him to consider how this can be translated into practice, and with this in mind, to examine carefully the Chinese spokesperson’s statement.
The New Zealand Government keeps saying that its foreign policy remains independent and nuclear-free.
I presume that is so, rather than going wherever a former, hugely nuclear-armed ally goes.
I look forward to Mr McCully’s next statement on the subject.
Your comments (see the box below) most welcome
Reports that query evidence of a North Korean torpedo:
Rush to Judgment: Inconsistencies in South Korea’s Cheonan Report
by Seunghun Lee (Department of Physics, University of Virginia) & J.J. Suh (SAIS, Johns Hopkins University)
“International” Investigation into the Sinking of the Cheonan and the Risk of a New Korean War