International review needed to ease Korean tensions

The Korean peninsula is on the brink of war again. Tensions have escalated to an all-time high since the cease-fire agreement in 1953, and even a small skirmish may now trigger a major military conflict. Threats from both the North and South are flowing freely now, each side becoming increasingly emboldened in its promises of retaliation.

Make no mistake: Another Korean war would be devastating to the global community. In addition to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of casualties, the nearly overnight destruction of social and economic capital would impose an irreversible and lasting effect on the world’s security and economy.

The use of nuclear weapons has also become a real possibility, and one for which North Koreans have prepared nearly all their lives. Now backed into a corner, North Korea’s willingness to engage in the ultimate warfare stems from the belief that it could very well “win” such a war. That is, if comparative casualties and destruction are the yardstick of victory, North Korea is sure to gain a measure of confidence in the protection afforded by its intricate system of bomb shelters and subway tunnels — a contingency not available to the completely exposed and vulnerable South.

What has gotten us to this point?

The easy answer is that we are here because of the North’s reckless behavior. After all, the “overwhelming evidence” produced by South Korea in collaboration with a panel of experts from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Sweden has led these nations to conclude that a North Korean submarine invaded South Korean waters, launched a torpedo that split a ship in half, and escaped undetected — all while a joint US-South Korea naval exercise was under way.

The North Korean government immediately denied its involvement and offered to send a team of experts to review the evidence, but South Korea rejected the proposal.

To date, China and Russia have not accepted the evidence as conclusive, and there are lingering doubts regarding the validity of Seoul’s evidence even within South Korea. In fact, only 72 percent of the South Korean public agrees that the government’s conclusion is credible.

It is unfortunate that the United States did not take time to coordinate with other major powers such as China and Russia before declaring its unconditional support for the South Korean allegation. Thus, it would seem that we are also here because we have let foreign policy be dictated by domestic political expediencies in both Seoul and Washington and because of their governments’ perpetuation of stereotypes about North Korea.

To avert the current crisis, there must be a truly international review group and North Korea, the accused in this matter, must be allowed to present its case. If the two Korean governments are left to proceed with their tit-for-tat game, a tragic consequence cannot be ruled out.Sanctions, bilateral or multilateral, designed to increase rhetorical condemnation, economic blockade, and political isolation will not work in forcing North Korea to change its policy measures. This should be obvious from past experience.

The current crisis, though, benefits Washington in solidifying its security alliance with South Korea and Japan, and may prove especially useful in securing Tokyo’s support for the continued stationing of US troops at a time when the new Japanese government might be forced by its people to demand their withdrawal. The conservative Lee Myung Bok government in South Korea also benefits from a boost in anti-North sentiment just prior to the June 2 provincial and local elections. We must also note that South Korea is one of the largest purchasers of weapons from the United States, and that this crisis is certain to bear commercial fruit. But is not the cost of these gains too great?

The only course of action at this time is to invite a truly comprehensive team representing all sides, including China, Russia, and North Korea itself, to the table to review all pieces of the official evidence produced by Seoul’s close allies. Seoul has nothing to hide because it has the conviction that the evidence is final and conclusive. This would not only allay the lingering doubts and suspicions of those, both foreign and domestic, who might question the legitimacy of a military campaign, but would also lend much-needed authority to the collective international efforts to sanction North Korea.

University of Georgia professor Han S. Park is the director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues.

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