North Korea and South Korea have traded artillery fire across the disputed Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea to the west of the peninsula. According to South Korean news reports, North Korea fired as many as 200 artillery rounds which began landing on and around South Korean controlled Yeonpyeongdo Island, killing 2 and injuring at least 18 South Korean soldiers.
South Korea responded with about 80 shells of its own being fired toward North Korea, scrambling F-16s, and raising the military alert status to its highest level. The sustained shelling of the island by North Korea appears to be a deliberate escalation of tensions between the two countries.
This incident comes during South Korea’s annual military exercises which were scheduled to last nine days and involved as many as 70000 personnel from all branches of the South Korean military.
The two Koreas are still technically at war — the Korean War ended only with a truce –and last March, when North Korea reportedly sunk a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors, caused tensions to rise to the highest point in recent years. Seoul blamed the sinking of the warship on a North Korean torpedo, while Pyongyang has denied any responsibility for the incident.
The western maritime boundary has been a flash point between the two Koreas. The North does not recognize the border that was unilaterally drawn by the United Nations at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The reasons for and the timing of North Korea’s firing on Yeonpyeongdo seem to contradict everything else under way concerning relations between the two countries. Talks were scheduled to take place beginning Thursday concerning North Korea’s nuclear program.
The BBC reported that President Barack Obama was awoken around 4 a.m. with news of the clash, and is phoning South Korean President Lee Myung-bak today. In a predawn statement, Washington, which has nearly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, condemned the attack and called on North Korea to “halt its belligerent action,” according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. He said the U.S. is “firmly committed” to South Korea’s defense and to the “maintenance of regional peace and stability.”
How long will it be before one of these incidents is taken too far and forces U.S. direct involvement into some sort of combat operations. It would take only a spark, or worse yet, a stupid mistake or misunderstanding for a war, never wanted, to break out.
The United States has a formal ‘‘mutual’’ defense treaty with South Korea, established during the initial decade of the cold war. When the security treaty went into effect in 1954, South Korea was a war-ravaged hulk that confronted not only a heavily armed North Korea, but a North Korea strongly backed by both Moscow and Beijing. Under those circumstances, it would have been virtually impossible for South Korea to provide for its own defense.
Those circumstances bear no resemblance to the situation in the 21st century. South Korea has a population twice that of the North and an economy 40 times as large as its Communist neighbor to the north. Additionally, Seoul has a U.S. commitment to come to her defense by air and sea in the event of a second Korean War.
The ROK is an economic powerhouse with the world’s 13th-largest economy, and South Korean firms are competitive in a host of high-tech industries. Meanwhile, North Korea is one of the world’s economic basket cases, and there have even been major episodes of famine in that pathetic country. Moscow and Beijing have major economic ties with the ROK and regard North Korea as an embarrassment. They have no interest whatever in backing another bid by Pyongyang to forcibly reunify the peninsula.
It is time to insist that South Korea manage its own security affairs. The United States has drawn down its military forces stationed in that country from approximately 37,000 to 27,000 over the past six years, but still at a cost of billions of dollars annually. Washington should implement a complete withdrawal within the next three years and terminate the misnamed mutual security treaty. That commitment was designed for an entirely different era. There is no need and very little benefit today for keeping American forces in South Korea. Indeed, it is more likely to invite an unwanted war.