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July 31, 2021

Korean Peninsula: loudspeakers and landmines

Last week, after an incident provoked in detail and in advance by the North Communist state, Seoul’s legitimate answer to the aggressive act resulted in an ultimatum from Pyongyang and the declaration of a state of semi-war in the North. Last Saturday at 5.00 p.m., the North called on the South to stop its moves in answer to the aggressive acts of the North (artillery shelling towards the South’s positions and deployment of its submarines) otherwise an all-out war has to be launched. What happened?
On August 5, two South Koreans soldiers triggered landmines planted undetectably (presumably between July 22 and August 4) by the North’s military close to their post within the South Korean half of the Demilitarized Zone, a buffer zone separating the two Korean armies since 1953. Both were wounded (both losing one of their legs). The landmines were planted just outside the South Korean guard post and exploded when the soldiers began the routine patrol. “This is a clear provocation by the North Korean military,” said Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for the South Korean military. “We swear a severe retaliation.” In response to the provocative action of the North, Seoul resumed, on August 10, loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts across the border for the first time in 11 years, expressing bitter criticism of the North’s communist government. The North threatened to attack the loudspeakers if the broadcasts continue.
Last Thursday (August 20), North Korea launched a rocket at the South’s positions. After an exchange of artillery salvos between the two sides, South Korean President Park Geun-hye convened an emergency meeting of the South’s National Security Council and called on the military to “deal resolutely with any North Korean provocations.” The following day, North Korea’s communist leader ordered a state of “semi-war” throughout the country and launched artillery attacks on the South’s positions. At the same time, he gave Seoul an ultimatum, pointing out that unless loudspeaker broadcasts – considered an “act of war” – stop then he would start the war. The ultimatum was set to expire at 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 22.
Before the ultimatum expired, an agreement was reached on the start of negotiations for the calming of the crisis between the two sides at Panmunjom, on the demarcation line, the very building in which the armistice was signed in the summer of 1953. The two sides negotiated extensively on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. On one hand however, the North continued to implement measures for the possibility of the start of the war – the deployment of its fleet of submarines, the positioning of heavy weapons toward the armistice line, the mobilization of its population, the start of a campaign for the military enrolment of volunteers. On the other hand, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea said that there was “no backing down” in the talks and that the South would continue its loudspeaker broadcasts unless the North apologized for its recent provocations. “In order to stop the repeating cycle of provocations and anxiety, we need a clear apology and commitment from the North that these things will not happen again.”
On the evening of August 24, the negotiations between the two sides paid off. An agreement was reached, the North expressing its “regret” for the landmine incident and the South taking the commitment to stop propaganda broadcasts at the demarcation line. It was agreed also to resume reunions for Korean families who were separated by the Korean War (about 70,000 South Koreans, most of them 80 years old or older, remain on a government waiting list, hoping to meet children or siblings they left in the North before they die). “South and North Korea agreed to hold a government meeting in Seoul or Pyongyang at an early date so that they can have dialogue and negotiations on various issues to improve relations,” said an official of ROK. South Korea left open the possibility of restarting its loudspeakers if “an abnormal case occurs.” The agreement also included boosting exchanges between nongovernmental groups in the two countries.
Several conclusions have to be drawn from this new episode of the crisis that has set in between the North and the South ever since the signing of the armistice in 1953, crisis that has gained more serious undertones for overall international security especially since the North developed a nuclear arsenal.
First of all, one has to emphasize the legitimate hard-line adopted by Seoul toward the North’s provocations. It is worth mentioning what the ROK President told her staff on August 24, after considering the entire situation, including the prolonged negotiations which began on Saturday, namely: “There is no room to back down. (…) If there is no apology, we will respond accordingly.” That offensive attitude brought results as we can see from the agreement reached the same day (note that it was decided to resume dialogue, a stipulation in line with Seoul’s policy of opening up towards the North and of assistance).
Secondly, what is disquieting is that the agreement which has been concluded after presumably tough negotiations does not say anything about the crucial issue on the peninsula: the North’s nuclear arsenal and the need to address it in order for it to be dismantled. In fact, only the solving of this complicated dossier, through the negotiations in which the great powers that have veto rights within the UN Security Council as well as the two Korean states are engaged, can put an end to the successive crisis episodes launched by the North and can open the road to the national reunification process.
No less important are the questions raised by this crisis episode. Was it a bluff through which the young and inexperienced leader of the North – who has become famous for his ruthless policy of suppressing opponents – tried to draw attention on him and to strengthen his internal prestige in the face of a confused, wavering elite that shows signs of revolt? Is this recent episode connected to the recently concluded “nuclear” agreement between Iran and the main global actors, an agreement through which Tehran commits itself to giving up the development of a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions and the continuation of its civilian nuclear programme? Is the North Korean communist leader possibly ready to follow the “Iranian model” in order to ensure the lifting of international economic sanctions and to become respectable on the international arena? Is the moment chosen for the staging of this crisis by the North connected with the big developments at international level, developments that garner the attention of the big international actors: the war in Ukraine, the slump of international equity markets, the refugee crisis in Europe etc.?
What is undeniable however is the fact that the South’s determined attitude in the face of the North’s provocative actions – its US ally immediately took measures to support Seoul’s acts of legitimate retaliation by deploying deterrent forces in the region – is the best way of putting an end to the diversions attempted by Pyongyang’s communist regime in order to ensure its survival.

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