BEIJING, July 26 (Xinhuanet) -- Does the joint military exercise presage troubled times ahead? Will tensions between the ROK and the DPRK ease or will they lead to a conflict? Two experts, a Chinese and an ROK national, enlighten us with their thoughts.
Peace still has not lost its chance
The US and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are holding the largest joint military drill since 1976 after blaming the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) for sinking ROK warship Cheonan in March. The DPRK has denied the charge and condemned the military exercise.
The situation in East Asia has complicated further. The Cheonan incident coincided with the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. And now people fear that the escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula could lead to another war and Northeast Asia may lose its peace and stability.
Since June, the ROK has been saying it would join the US to hold a military exercise involving the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS George Washington, in the Yellow Sea, which Seoul calls the West Sea, as a "deterrent" to the DPRK.
The US and the ROK hold about 100 joint drills every year, but they have not acted as a "deterrent" to the DPRK. Holding this drill in China's coastal waters, however, will increase Chinese people's uneasiness and anger. The spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly opposed the ROK-US joint drills in the Yellow Sea.
Seoul and Pyongyang have shared an uneasy relationship since the ceasefire in the Korean War in 1953. In legal and technical terms, the war has not ended because a peace treaty did not follow the ceasefire agreement. And the Cheonan incident has heightened tensions on the divided peninsula.
But contrary to people's fears, the situation on the Korean Peninsula doesn't seem to be heading toward a large-scale conflict, let alone a full-fledged war. With the efforts of the countries of the region and the international community, it is possible to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia. There are three major reasons for this optimism.
First, the current international environment is entirely different from what it was 60 years ago when the world (most of it) was divided into two rival camps. Since peace and development have become the theme of the times, the US and the European countries don't want to be bogged down in recession again with the outbreak of another war. And even though the US and some other countries backed the investigation into the Cheonan incident, they refrain from military retaliation.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the findings "deeply troubling" and said he was confident that the Security Council would fulfill its responsibility of maintaining international peace and security. Since Ban is a former ROK foreign minister, his calmness may help control some ROK nationals' jingoism. Accordingly, a UN Security Council statement calls for appropriate and peaceful measures to be taken against those responsible, but by avoiding conflicts and not escalating tensions.
Second, neither Pyongyang nor Seoul wants the dispute to escalate into a military conflict, because it would be a big blow to the DPRK's efforts to improve its people's living standards and disastrous for the ROK's economic recovery.
Third, besides sympathizing with the ROK, a majority of the countries, including China, support a scientific and objective investigation into the Cheonan incident to find out the truth and have appealed to Seoul and Pyongyang to maintain peace and stability in the region.
The Six-Party Talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is an established platform for avoiding conflicts. Holding talks to settle disputes will not only help all the parties clarify facts, but also defuse the tensions between the ROK and DPRK.
That's why it is unwise to consider the resumption of the Six-Party Talks as an "award" for the DPRK and an "incentive for provocative actions". Declining engagement could only sharpen conflicts and would not be good for the settlement of disputes.
What's comforting is the presence of elements in ROK, despite the jingoists, who are appealing to their leaders to maintain calm. The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper and the Korea Times are two such elements. The Western media, too, have been trying to soothe frayed nerves on the peninsula. In an article, "Don't sink diplomacy", in the New York Times, former US State Department official Joel S. Wit wrote that, in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident, a return to dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang is the only realistic way to rein in the DPRK's "objectionable activities".
The Korean War was catastrophic for the people on the peninsula, and its consequences were felt across the world. If all the parties look back at the Korean War and understand the need to avoid another man-made catastrophe and value the hard-won peace and stability in the region, they can prevent history from repeating itself.
The author is a research scholar with the Institute of Frontier Studies in Shenyang-based Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences.
Draw ROK, DPRK to talks table
The US-ROK joint military drill, the biggest ever, around the Korean Peninsula has raised China's concerns and made it warn that it could heighten tensions in the region.
Tensions intensified on the peninsula because of an issue between the two Koreas: Cheonan, a corvette of the Republic of Korea (ROK), sank in the West Sea (Yellow Sea) near the inter-Korean border in a torpedo attack, which the ROK said was the result of a secret maneuver of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). But, as always, a Korean Peninsula security issue is not just a matter between the two Koreas, but an international issue with which global powers, US and China, most conspicuously, and Japan and Russia are involved.
Sixty years have passed since the Korean War broke out. Things have changed dramatically since then, just like an old saying (from a P.B. Shelley poem), naught may endure but mutability.
But suddenly it's dj vu all over again - the present times remind of the times of the Korean War. Have things not changed then, or have they gone backward? If we are living in the times of 60 years ago, we have to wake up and "go back to the future". It's time to think about what we have reaped so far and how to get out of the Cheonan quagmire.
Who is the first winner in the Cheonan incident? The answer is the US.
The US has made two important gains from the Cheonan incident. Taking advantage of the ROK government's resentment against the DPRK and disappointment with the way China has dealt with the issue, the US has got the opportunity to show off its state-of-the-art naval armament in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and demonstrate to the world, especially China and the DPRK, its willingness to protect its precious Asian ally. Plus, it made former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama concede to its demand of maintaining the American air-force base in Okinawa, because of the seemingly heightened security threat from the DPRK.
The US had been angry with its faithful Asian ally, Japan, after its former prime minister vowed to shift the US air-force base in Futenma out of Okinawa. The US realized that any such move could weaken its military power in the Asia-Pacific region and feared that its old ally was trying to change its submissive ways.
In such circumstances occurred the tragic incident of Cheonan, providing a valuable opportunity to the US to recharge the security alignment in East Asia. The long-drawn Futenma air-force base issue, which was like a fish-bone stuck in America's throat, was thus solved in one stroke.
The massive joint military exercise will help not only to massage the depressed heart of the ROK government, which was not satisfied with the "compromised" UN Security Council statement denouncing the attack without putting the blame on the DPRK, but also to confirm the necessity of the US military existence in East Asia. It will help the US show its readiness to defend the ROK, too, just like it sees China doing with the DPRK.
What has the ROK government won?
The conservative hardliner ROK government has won the steadfast support of the US government for its hawkish policy.
Late ROK president Roh Moo-hyun was dovish toward the DPRK and professed a nationalistic slogan, and his relationship with the George W. Bush administration was, not surprisingly, awkward and often discordant. Now the conservative ROK government has earned the honeymoon with the US it had been longing for. It must amuse conservatives in both the countries. But the cost will be too expensive for the ROK.
Let us think about what has been lost and may be lost. The ROK has lost the communication channel with the DPRK and the bud of political confidence that was sprouting with China. Most of the official communication channels with the DPRK have been shut under the Lee Myung-bak government and the 10-year achievements in the relationship with the DPRK seem to have led nowhere. We have to remember, too, that China is the ROK's biggest trade partner and a good relationship with Beijing is Seoul's precious diplomatic asset that should not be dumped. It's time to recover what has been lost.
So, what can China and US do?
The two countries fought in the Korean War 60 years ago. But now they are strategic partners and responsible for global issues.
Their common interest today is peace on the Korean Peninsula. They need to sit down and find a way out of the quagmire.
Persuading (or urging) the DPRK and the ROK to come to a negotiation table and collaborate would be a more realistic strategy.
The author is professor at the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy of Pusan National University, the ROK.