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The United States Can and Should Stop the Escalation

In the wake of live artillery exchange between North and South Korea on November 23, 2010 resulting in the deaths of four South Koreans on Yeonpyeong Island, the United States and South Korea are planning once again to conduct live artillery exercises, starting today through Tuesday, from Yeonpyeong Island, and surrounding areas, in spite of repeated warnings by Pyongyang that it will again, retaliate.

“Second and third self-defensive blows that cannot be predicted will be dealt” if the exercises go forward, North Korea warned South Korea earlier today, according to North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). “The intensity and range of the firepower will create a situation more serious than the one on Nov. 23,” North Korea’s military said.

Efforts by China and Russia to convince the United States and South Korea to cancel the live artillery exercises have not borne fruit as yet. Thus there remains the possibility of an outbreak of fighting in the disputed waters of the West Sea. The possibility that the fighting might spread uncontrollably beyond the West Sea cannot be discounted.

The Yeonpyeong Island, and several others in the area, lay just south of the “Northern Limit Line” (NLL) which follows the west coast of North Korea just 3 nautical miles from shore. The line, which was drawn unilaterally by the United States after the Armistice, is not recognized by North Korea. Since the early 1970s the international community has recognized 12 nautical miles as the conventional offshore territorial boundary.

The live artillery drills will take place in South Korean territory, based on the Northern Limit Line, 3 miles off coast, but within North Korean territory based on the 12 nautical mile convention. Hence, the characterization, “disputed waters,” often employed to describe the location of deadly naval clashes in the West Sea which occurred in 1999, 2002, 2009, last March and November.

In their article on the history of the NLL, Bloomberg, 12/17/2010, Daniel Ten Kate and Peter Green report that U.S. officials believed that the NLL was “contrary to law.” “Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in a 1975 classified cable that the unilaterally drawn Northern Limit Line was ‘clearly contrary to international law.’ Two years before, the American ambassador said in another cable that many nations would view South Korea and its U.S. ally as ‘in the wrong’ if clashes occurred in disputed areas along the boundary,” they reported.

The live artillery drills are widely viewed as military posturing by the administration of South Korean President, Lee Myung Bak, however the South Korean armed forces remain under the command of the United States. Ultimately the finger on the trigger for the planned live artillery firing, weather permitting, is that of President Barack Obama. At the same time New Mexico Governor, Bill Richardson, is in Pyongyang reporting that North Korea wishes to restart the six party talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and replace the Korean War Armistice with a peace treaty. China and Russia are also calling upon the United States and South Korea to restart diplomacy. After two years of pursuing a policy of “strategic patience” to contain North Korea, it appears that President Obama is facing a stark choice between War and Peace in northeast Asia.

In the event that fighting breaks out on the Korean peninsula we urge our readers to question efforts to indict North Korea as being solely responsible for provoking the military clashes in the West Sea. This is clearly not the case. The U.S. and South Korea are recklessly pushing tensions on the peninsula to the brink of war as well. President Obama can and should put a stop to the escalation. We cannot again, blindfolded, be marched off to war. A good way for readers to begin learning about the background to recent fighting in the West Sea would be to read the full Bloomberg article by Kate and Green, and to study the map of the disputed boundaries in the West Sea that accompanies their article and which is republished above.


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