Tension has been escalating in the Korean peninsula after a multinational probe into the sinking of South Korean warship found overwhelming evidence that a North Korean submarine was to blame for the March 26 incident that claimed 46 lives. Intense diplomatic efforts are going on across the world to de-escalate the tension between the nuclear-armed North Korea and the US-backed South.
Although, the chances of the crisis turning into a full-scale military conflict are slim, limited clashes between the two countries are possible. South Korea has started anti-submarine exercises in the tense waters and raised the alert level for its military. Seoul has already cut trade and banned the North’s cargo ships from its waters.
North Korea, on the other hand, has furiously denied its role in the ship-sinking and warned of war if the South went ahead with the sanctions. “If South Korea takes any provocative action against us in terms of political, economic and military measures, backed by the United States, we will respond with war for justice,” said the state-run KRT television channel. Pyongyang also threatened to shut the last road link with the South if Seoul resumes loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts across their heavily armed border.
On diplomatic front, South Korea’s key backer United States has launched intense efforts to muster international support against North Korea. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week visited Japan, China and South Korea to discuss the possible response to the North Korean “provocation”. She sought Chinese support for international action against North Korea. “This was an unacceptable provocation by North Korea and the international community has a responsibility and a duty to respond,” Mrs Clinton said in Seoul after the two-day China visit.
South Korea is pressing US to initiate efforts for stricter UN sanctions against Pyongyang. However, this is not possible without the support of veto-wielding China, the sole backer of North Korea. China, on the other hand, is still cautious in its response. Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun said his country was still evaluating information on the sinking of the Cheonan. “We have always believed that dialogue is better than confrontation,” Zhijun said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the European Union have also expressed deep concerns over the situation, and urged both sides to exercise restraint. “The ministers called on all parties concerned to exercise restraint and to step up efforts to promote lasting peace and security on the Korean peninsula,” said the joint statement issued after a conference of the foreign ministers of EU and Asean in Madrid on Wednesday. They also reiterated their support for the six-party talks as the best means to achieve denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.
The growing international consensus against North Korea could lead to fresh UN sanctions against the regime. However experts believe that the new sanctions would hardly yield any results. Earlier sanctions on North Korea had failed to pressurise the regime into changing its stance. On the other hand, South Korea too, cannot afford to initiate a war against the North which possesses a million-strong army and an unknown number of nuclear warheads.
A policy of international engagement with Pyongyang with the strong support of China and Russia could yield better results. The North Korean leadership would also have to realise that escalation of tensions and full-scale war is not in the best interest of the North Korean and its people.
The best possible scenario out of this crisis is a permanent peace treaty between the two Koreas and denuclearization of the peninsula through six-party talks.