On Monday, the Korean peninsula averted a cataclysmic showdown that could have escalated into full-blown war. The United Nations Security Council wasn’t able to conclude a statement that would defuse tensions, with countries lining up along Cold War divisions.
Seconds before I appeared on Al-Jazeera International Sunday night, the producer informed me that South Korea, despite pleas from both Russia and China to cancel the live fire artillery drills, had in fact started the exercises. Having been to North Korea several times, and knowing how their worldview centers on the right to defend their sovereignty, I feared the worst.
But by the time I returned home, the South Korean military drills were over. It lasted 94 minutes. North Korea, which had promised to retaliate with even more force than the November 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong island, decided that the South’s aggression was “not worth reacting” to. According to the North’s Korean Central News Agency, “The world should properly know who is the true champion of peace and who is the real provocateur of a war.”
Without a doubt, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s trip to Pyongyang was crucial to cooling the tensions. Richardson has experience dealing with Pyongyang. In 1996 he went to secure the release of an American civilian who had illegally crossed the Yalu River into North Korea. But as the former energy secretary in the Clinton administration and governor of the state that houses the Los Alamos National Lab, Richardson knows energy, especially policy governing nuclear energy. At the eleventh hour, Richardson was able to secure a deal with Pyongyang in which they agreed to allow UN inspectors to monitor its nuclear program and an offer to sell 12,000 plutonium fuel rods to South Korea. North Korean officials are also considering Richardson’s recommendation to establish a hotline between North Korea and South Korea as well as a tri-lateral commission consisting of North Korea, South Korea, and the United States to address military disputes.
In addition to Richardson’s swift diplomacy, several other factors may have played a role in de-escalating the crisis. One, according to independent journalist Tim Shorrock, may have been the strong caution expressed in a December 16 press conference by U.S. General James Cartwright, the number two ranking officer at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cartwright explained that North Korea, in response to South Korea’s live artillery drill, could react and fire back on the islands, which “would start potentially a chain reaction of firing and counter-firing. What you don’t want to have happen out of that is for the escalation to be—for us to lose control of the escalation.” According to an email from Shorrock, Cartwright “seemed to be saying very diplomatically that South Korea should back off.”
An important Bloomberg story about the Northern Limit Line (NLL), which received very little play in the media, is key to understanding the root cause of the current crisis over the disputed waters in the West Sea. This area has been the site of multiple deadly naval clashes, which occurred in 1999, 2002, 2009, last March and November. The cycle of violence nearly ended on October 4, 2007 when then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il pledged to hold talks to “discuss ways of designating a joint fishing area in the West Sea to avoid accidental clashes and turning it into a peace area.” According to Henry Em, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at New York University, “The 2007 agreement was thrown out as part of the new government’s strategy of getting tough with North Korea… [which] has been met with North Korea’s get-tough policy toward South Korea, with tragic and dangerous consequences.”
A Disputed Boundary
North Korea felt justified in retaliating against the South Korean shelling on November 23 because the nearly 4,000 shots the South Korean military fired within a four-hour period emanated from waters Pyongyang considers to be North Korean territory. Although Yeonpyeong Island, and four other nearby islands, were designated as South Korean under the 1953 armistice agreement, the waters surrounding them were not. In 1953, to restrain then-South Korean leader Syngman Rhee from continuing to attack the North, the United States unilaterally drew the NLL, which follows the coast of North Korea approximately 3 miles off-shore.
Not only is the NLL illegitimate because North Korea never agreed to it, international maritime convention considers 12 miles to be the boundary of any country’s waters. Yeonpyeong Island, from which South Korea conducted live artillery drills on November 23 and earlier this week, lies within 12 nautical miles of North Korea’s coastline. North Korea’s insistence that the South was conducting live artillery drills within its territorial boundaries is therefore not without basis.
But it’s not just the North Koreans who think the NLL isn’t legal. On December 17, two Bloomberg reporters discovered secret telegrams sent by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in 1975 stating that the Northern Limit Line is “clearly contrary to international law.” The confidential February 1975 telegram from Kissinger reads, “As we have noted before (Ref B) Northern Patrol Limit Line does not have international legal status. NPLL was unilaterally established and not accepted by NK. Furthermore, insofar as it purports unilaterally to divide international waters, it is clearly contrary to international law and USG law of the sea position. Armistice provides two sides must respect each other’s “contiguous waters”, which negotiating history indicates would mean as maximum 12 miles.”
The Bloomberg reporters also quote a December 19, 1973 cable to Washington from Ambassador Francis Underhill who wrote, “The ROK and the U.S. might appear in the eyes of a significant number of other countries to be in the wrong” if an incident occurred in disputed areas. According to Mark J. Valencia, a maritime lawyer with the National Bureau of Asian Research, “If it ever went to arbitration, the decision would likely move the line further south.”
According to The New York Times, “Park In-kook, the South Korean ambassador, noted that the line had been established in 1953 and that North Korea had accepted it under a 1992 agreement, diplomats said.” Park may be referring to the North-South Joint Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Cooperation and Exchange, which did not specifically mention the Northern Limit Line, and in fact neither side has implemented it. The clearest expression of agreement between North and South Korea addressing the disputed West Sea waters was set forth by North and South Korean leaders in their 2007 summit meeting. In that meeting both sides agreed to establish a “peace zone” in the West Sea. Unfortunately, as soon as President Lee Myung Bak took office in 2008, he backed away from the agreements made in the 2000 and 2007 North – South summit meetings in favor of a more hard-line approach to the North.
Resolving the Stalemate
Since it’s unlikely that Lee Myung Bak will revive the 2007 agreement between North and South Korea, veteran Korea expert Selig Harrison proposed a solution in a New York Times op-ed last week: “The solution could be quite straightforward: the United States should redraw the disputed sea boundary, called the Northern Limit Line, moving it slightly to the south.” It’s that easy. And Harrison asserts that this is possible because “President Obama has the authority to redraw the line” as the United States is still the head of the United Nations Command for Korea. After consulting with Seoul and Pyongyang, the United States should get to work to not only redraw the line but also seriously move toward peace talks. This could be the first priority of the trilateral commission, if it were established.
As I remained fixed to my computer watching for developments and following twitter feeds over the weekend, I couldn’t help but feel both anxious and enraged. This ongoing game of brinkmanship played by our world leaders could have had horrific consequences. As I watched footage of elderly Koreans forced out of their homes and into bunkers, I imagined how traumatic it must have been, especially for the survivors of the Korean War.
Tragically, Koreans on the peninsula and in the Diaspora must not only live with the painful memories of the Korean War, which claimed millions of lives and separated millions of families. We must also live with the hard truth that the Korean War is still not over 60 years later and the country remains divided. And all for what purpose and whose objectives? Certainly not for the security of the lives of ordinary Koreans, north and south.
Christine Ahn is a Korea Policy Institute Fellow, a columnist with Foreign Policy in Focus, and a member of the National Campaign to End the Korean War.