Art by Sacha Irick
With much ado about Russia’s actions in Crimea these past few weeks, there are precious few countries on earth that could take the headlines away, and the list grows shorter when it is limited to those that would even want to. At the top of the short list for countries is none other than North Korea. It exists today as a relic of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union tried to spread communism around the world and the United States did everything in its power to contain it.
While many other such countries have opened themselves to the world or transitioned to more representative forms of government, North Korea remains a repressive dictatorship dependent on the outside world for aid to sustain itself. In that greater narrative, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution March 26 identifying North Korea as a human rights violator, and calling on the UN Security Council to take action against those responsible.
That is highly unlikely as long as China, with its Security Council veto, decides to maintain its close relationship with North Korea. What is more likely is that crimes against humanity will continue to be committed and events on the Korean Peninsula will transpire as usual. For example, the annual joint military exercises involving 190,000 South Korean soldiers and the 12,700 U.S. soldiers are taking place until April 18.
Since the Korean War began when North Korea attacked the South, the military exercises provide a valuable chance for both militaries to ensure that such a surprise attack couldn’t happen again. Not only do the exercises give commanders and soldiers experience in the sort of large-scale military operations which would be involved in repelling an attack, they also serve as a very visible sign to North Korea of the readiness and capabilities of the forces defending the South.
Such an impressive show of force demands some sort of response to prove that North Korea is still not to be trifled with. Since they lack the huge amounts of money necessary for their own military exercises, they have to prove that they are willing to use what they’ve got in any conflict. They always condemn the exercises as simulating an invasion, and then they lash out in some way. In past years, they have responded with a nuclear test, a ballistic missile test, or even firing on South Korean territory; on Monday, they chose the latter option.
In a surprising turn of events — for the first time in their history — North Korea announced via a fax to the South Korean navy that they would hold live fire drills in a disputed region along the two countries’ maritime border. Shortly after the shock of realizing people still use fax machines, residents of the area were evacuated to a safe zone in anticipation of the barrage. North Korean artillery fired hundreds of shells into the disputed territory.
In response, the South Korean military fired artillery shells of its own into the water in the disputed territory and readied troops and fighter jets in the area for any further provocations. Fortunately in this instance, the South was warned beforehand that the exercise was going to take place. Even more fortunately, no lives were lost as they were in 2010 when the Chenoan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo and North Korean artillery shelled the island of Yeonpyeong.
As the Korean War resulted in an armistice agreement rather than a peace treaty and never officially ended, allowing the North to continue on its path will only increase the risk of conflict in the region as tensions continue to rise and lives are put at risk. Thankfully, this incident hasn’t cost any lives, but ongoing provocations from North Korea continue to threaten stability. Last week’s ballistic missile test combined with an announcement by the North that they are planning a new type of nuclear test prove that all is not well, and that plenty of room for mistakes and miscalculations still exists.
The side effect of their misbehavior is that in the ongoing negotiations with the West, North Korea can swear off one of their chosen actions in return for much-needed food aid. Having gamed the system for such a long time, the North increasingly needs to resort to larger and larger provocations each time to make its threats credible.
In light of the long-overdue recognition by the UN of the crimes against humanity happening in North Korea and the threat to China’s own security due to the destabilization of the region, all efforts possible need to be made to bring China on board with stricter measures to stop the reign of terror in North Korea, bring the criminals to justice, free the people and bring peace to the peninsula.
Follow Patrick Rear on Twitter: @pgrear92
Follow Sacha Irick on Twitter: @GraphicSacha