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Interview with Henry Em on Yeonpyeong Island

On November 22, 2010, military troops from the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) and the United States began joint war-simulation exercises involving approximately 70,000 soldiers, 600 tanks, 500 warplanes, 90 helicopters, and 50 warships. On November 23, South Korean artillery units fired artillery for four hours into contested waters claimed by both Pyongyang and Seoul near the Northern Limit Line (NLL). Drawn unilaterally by the US Navy in 1953, the NLL is neither internationally recognized nor accepted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea).

North Korean artillery units responded by firing on a South Korean artillery base on Yeonpyeong Island. The South Korean marines responded by firing back at North Korean bases on the coast across from the island. On Yeonpyeong Island, a site with South Korean military bases and a fishing community of 1,300 residents, North Korean artillery killed two South Korean marines and two civilian contractors building new barracks on a military installation. The attack left eighteen others injured. North Korea has not yet disclosed its casualties, but one South Korean report indicates that one North Korean soldier was killed and two others were seriously wounded.*

(* This intro is substantively taken from the National Committee to End the Korean War‘s Fact Sheet on the West Sea Crisis.)

To make sense of why this dangerous and tragic situation occurred, the Korea Policy Institute interviewed Dr. Henry Em, Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at New York University (NYU). Dr. Em serves on the steering committee of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea (ASCK) and KPI’s advisory board. His teaching and research interests include Korean historiography, nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism in twentieth-century Korea, transnational and cultural studies of the Korean War, and the Korean diaspora. Among other honors, Dr. Em was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Program Fellowship, as well as grants from the Freeman Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His book Sovereignty and Modern Korean Historiography will be published by Duke University Press. His chapter on modern Korean historiography, forthcoming, will appear in volume 5 of the Oxford History of Historical Writing from Oxford University Press.


[Korea Policy Institute]: For decades, the U.S. and South Korea have been conducting war games simulating an invasion of North Korea. North Korea has long maintained that these war games are an attack on their sovereignty. Why did the North Koreans decide to fire on Yeonpyeong now and not in the past?

[Henry Em]: Setting aside larger political considerations for the moment—both within North Korea and between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States—North Korean artillery fired on Yeonpyeong for the first time on November 23, 2010. But several months ago, in early August, North Korean artillery had fired live shells into the waters close to Baegnyeong Island and Yeonpyeong Island, islands controlled by South Korea but located closer to North Korea in the West Sea (Yellow Sea).

Back in August, North Korea was responding to artillery fire from South Korean bases on those islands. In September, South Korea held artillery exercises again. In October, no artillery exercises were held. But on November 23rd, according to a leaked South Korean Ministry of National Defense report, artillery units on those islands—as part of the large, nation-wide military exercise Hoguk—again fired artillery into waters claimed by North Korea.

On that day, November 23rd, from 10:15 am until North Korea began shelling Yeonpyeong Island at 2:34 pm, South Korean artillery units had fired 3,657 times, or over 900 shells per hour, into waters claimed by North Korea.

If we were to focus on clashes just within this area of the West Sea, both clashes on the sea and artillery fire around the five islands controlled by South Korea, we need to keep in mind that, on October 4, 2007, North Korea and South Korea had signed an agreement that, among other things, pledged to “discuss ways of designating a joint fishing area in the West Sea to avoid accidental clashes and turning it into a peace area.”

However, starting in February 28, 2008, when Lee Myung-bak became President of South Korea, that 2007 agreement was thrown out, as part of the new government’s strategy of getting tough with North Korea. That is to say, the Lee Myung-bak government’s get-tough policy toward North Korea has been met with North Korea’s get-tough policy toward South Korea, with tragic (and dangerous) consequences.

[Korea Policy Institute]: North and South Korea recently seemed to be enjoying the beginning of a thaw in relations. For example, family reunifications had restarted again, humanitarian aid had resumed, and rhetoric over the Cheonan incident had toned down. What then explains the hostile military response to the U.S.-S.K. joint military exercise?

[Henry Em]: When President Lee Myung-bak took office in February, 2008, his strategy was to strengthen the South Korea U.S. alliance, and to gain some measure of dominance over North Korea. For the Lee Myung-bak government, strengthening the South Korea-U.S. alliance has meant, among other things, getting the United States to go along with abandoning engagement with North Korea. This is what former President Jimmy Carter meant when he said recently that the Obama administration’s policy toward Korea had been “captured” by South Korea.

Now North Korea is trying to force the Obama administration to drop its policy of “strategic patience.” We should keep in mind that “strategic patience” here means maintaining sanctions against North Korea, interdiction of North Korean ships on the high seas, etc. That is to say, North Korea is trying to force the United States to loosen its grip, and to make peace.

But there is force and there is force. North Korea’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island demonstrates, I think, North Korea’s lack of understanding of the importance of public opinion in the United States. Having seen photos and footage of plumes of black smoke rising from North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and reports of four deaths, public opinion in the United States will make it near impossible for the Obama administration to sit down and negotiate directly with North Korea. In the short term, then, North Korea’s attack on Yeonpyeong will only strengthen the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.

But I think in the longer term, North Korea is making it perfectly clear that, as Leon Sigal put it, “the only thing worse than negotiating with North Korea is not negotiating with North Korea.” This is a lesson that past several American Presidents have had to learn.

War cannot be an option. But the Lee Myung-bak government and the Obama administration are together trying to make North Korea and China believe that war is an option the U.S. and South Korea can and will contemplate. The problem is, North Korea has proven that it will not blink first. So it’s a very dangerous situation.

[Korea Policy Institute]: So much of the focus has been upon how this incident has impacted relations between North & South. But tensions are also developing between the U.S. and China. Can you help us understand what the relationship is between this incident and U.S.-China relations?

[Henry Em]: I think John Feffer is right when he points out that U.S. policy toward China tries to do two things at the same time: contain China, and at the same time persuade China to cooperate with the United States on various political, strategic, and economic issues around the world.

After North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the Obama administration sent an aircraft carrier strike force into the West Sea (Yellow Sea) to conduct joint war exercises with the South Korean armed forces, and it has just announced that the United States will not take part in “emergency consultations” proposed by China to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula.

That is to say, at the moment Washington and Seoul (and Japan) are united against North Korea, and trying to force China to get tough with North Korea. But I think that’s a policy based on refusal to understand, and a refusal to recognize, North Korea’s political culture and its security concerns, and China’s security concerns as well.

I wish we would remember that when both Washington and Seoul were committed to an engagement policy toward North Korea, in cooperation with China, we saw real improvement and progress toward peace and security on the Korean peninsula. Now we just have containment, and the real possibility of war.


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