Koreas are back from the brink

The North and South Korean governments have defused a crisis that was escalating dangerously over the past month. They have signed a deal that pulls the two neighbours back from the brink of military confrontation. The spark to the current crisis was provided by a landmine blast in the Demilitarised Zone early this month that injured two South Korean soldiers, which Seoul blamed on North Korea. It then went on to infuriate Pyongyang by broadcasting hostile propaganda via loudspeakers along their border. The two sides had agreed on halting this practice in 2004. A war of words then broke out, followed by a brief exchange of fire. North Korea warned Seoul that it considered the propaganda broadcasts a declaration of war and even ordered its troops to be on alert. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and both sides decided to negotiate an end to the crisis. The outcome is a deal, which provides both sides with a face-saving exit from the escalating tension. Seoul, which demanded an apology from the North, got a “regret” from the latter. Pyongyang also pulled back the troops it deployed on the frontline. In return, South Korea agreed to halt its provocative broadcasts.

Although the Korean War ended in 1953, North and South Koreas remain in a technical state of war, since the war ended with a truce and not a peace treaty. Relations between the two are fragile and tension erupts periodically, often culminating in exchange of fire. Their border is the most militarised in the world. Adding to the unstable bilateral relationship is the fact that nuclear-armed North Korea often threatens to use its nuclear weapons against the South. Its rather eccentric leadership deepens the world’s worries. However, Seoul fuels the acrimony too. Encouraged by the support its gets from the United States, it frequently provokes Pyongyang. Joint US-South Korea military exercises are often obviously aimed at intimidating North Korea. While the tension in the Korean peninsula is sometimes the result of misunderstandings and misreading of each other’s moves, it is hard to dispel the feeling that much of the tension here is manufactured. It helps the North Korean regime to divert public attention away from the daily problems of hunger and unemployment. Raising the Pyongyang bogey comes in handy for South Korean politicians to mobilise electoral support and for the US to sell weaponry to a terrified South Korea. Direct and sustained negotiations are necessary.

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