By Stephen Gowans
There are three key facts that place the brinkmanship being played out on the Korean peninsula into perspective. With these facts providing the context, the recent behavior of south Korea is revealed to be that of a local bully acting on behalf of a much larger global one.
The first key fact is that north Korea is a military pipsqueak in comparison with the militaries that have taken an actively hostile stance towards it. South Korea’s military budget is many times larger than north Korea’s, and the south Korean military is integrated into the world’s preeminent military machine, the US armed forces. Close to 30,000 US troops are stationed on Korean soil; 40,000 in nearby Japan can be deployed quickly to increase US military power on the peninsula. US submarines lurk on the edges of north Korea’s territorial waters. US spy planes fly high over its territory. And US strategic nuclear missiles are targeted on north Korean sites. To think that north Korea poses a danger to south Korea is to think that a flyweight boxer is a threat to a middleweight backed by the world’s superheavyweight champion. The best a flyweight can do is strike back if attacked and inflict some damage, knowing he’ll be pulverized in the conflict. The north Koreans recognize the gross imbalance in power and do what a military pipsqueak can only do: develop the most formidable deterrents it can while seeking peace.
The north Korean leadership is transformed by US officials and their media echo chamber from a non-threat into a menacing threat by being depicted as mad and unpredictable. Only in this way can a weak country be turned into a danger. But as a former US ambassador to south Korea, Donald Gregg, put it: “We demonize [Kim Jong Il] as a ‘nut case,’ but I have talked to Russians, Chinese, South Koreans and Americans who have met with him at length, and all say he is extremely intelligent. What Kim wants is sustained, serious talks with the US, leading to a comprehensive peace treaty.” 
The second key fact is that the United States has sought the destruction of the north Korean state for the last 60 years. And the way it has tried to bring about this demise– apart from going to war with the DPRK in the early 1950s – is to:
• Isolate north Korea diplomatically.
• Subject it to the longest campaign of economic warfare in modern history (stretching all the way back to 1950).
• Continually threaten Pyongyang militarily to place it on a constant war footing that depletes its resources and cripples its economy.
Open hostilities may have come to a close in 1953 with the signing of an armistice, but the United States and its south Korean marionette have waged a cold war (with brief periods of detente) against north Korea ever since. A peace treaty has never been signed to formally end the war, despite numerous entreaties by Pyongyang to do so.
The third key fact is that the current government in Seoul under the right-wing Lee Myung-bak is more closely aligned with US foreign policy on north Korea than two previous governments were. Lee wants to see north Korea’s collapse and its absorption by the south, while two other south Korean administrations had once pursued a policy of detente.
Lee, a former chairman and chief executive officer of Hyundai, came into office to save the country from what his supporters called “leftist, anti-U.S. and pro-north Korean elements. ” In the view of his supporters, this included former presidents Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Dae Jung, who pursued policies of coexistence with north Korea and worked toward an eventual confederation. Lee, by contrast, is committed to a policy of confrontation, heightened tensions and subordination of the north to the south. Where Roh and Kim dropped the designation of north Korea as the ROK’s archenemy, Lee restored it. This led US Korea expert Selig Harrison to declare that “south Korea is once again seeking the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.” 
Lee’s local reputation is one of a US puppet betraying Korean interests.
When tens of thousands of South Koreans spilled into central Seoul …(in 2008) … in the country’s largest antigovernment protest in 20 years, the police built a barricade with shipping containers. They coated them with oil and filled them with sandbags so protesters could not climb or topple them to march on President Lee Myung-bak’s office a couple of blocks away. Faced with the wall, people pasted identical leaflets on it, their message dramatically summarizing Mr. Lee’s image and alienation from many of his people: ‘This is a new border for our country. From here starts the U.S. state of South Korea.’ In the background, a female voice from a battery of loudspeakers led the crowd to chant: ‘Lee Myung-bak is Lee Wan-yong!’ Lee Wan-yong is an infamous name every South Korean child knows. A royal court minister at the turn of the last century who helped Imperial Japan annex Korea as a colony, he is Korea’s No. 1 national traitor. Lee has become ‘a Korean leader kowtowing to the Americans.’ 
Far from originating in north Korean aggression, the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula are the outcome of the Lee government’s policy of seeking the collapse of north Korea in order to absorb it into the south. To justify its policy of heightened confrontation, Seoul has turned reality on its head and presented all its provocations as self-defense against north Korean aggression. Accordingly, when the south Korean corvette, the Cheonan, sank in March in shallow waters near the north Korean coast after running aground and becoming entangled with an old mine, Lee quickly manoeuvred to blame the tragedy on a north Korean torpedo, even though his own military initially denied a torpedo was involved and said that north Korean submarines weren’t in the area. Despite this, Lee said his intuition told him a north Korean torpedo was behind the sinking. Unsurprisingly, weeks later, the official inquiry into the sinking bore out the president’s intuition. Lee seized on the opportunity to blame the tragedy on Pyongyang. This allowed him to call for an even more aggressive stance toward north Korea. Washington too exploited the tragedy and the pinning of it on Pyongyang to justify its continued military presence in Japan.
In November, when north Korea shelled a south Korean marine garrison on an island lying only eight miles off the north Korean coast, the south Korean president – as well as Washington and the western media – portrayed the shelling as an unprovoked act of north Korean aggression. But south Korean marines had fired live artillery into waters that, according to international customary law, belong to north Korea. Seoul, however, claims the waters as its own based on a sea border drawn unilaterally by the US military in 1953. Hardly unprovoked, the north Korean retaliation was triggered by the south Korean violation of north Korean territorial waters.
Moreover, the artillery exchange between the two Koreas coincided with south Korean manoeuvres involving 70,000 ROK troops backed by US Marines. Pyongyang saw the exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion, not an unreasonable inference given the number of troops involved and Lee’s overt hostility to the DPRK. In the context of a highly charged and ambiguous military situation (how could the DPRK generals distinguish a rehearsal for an invasion from preparation for a real one?) south Korea’s live artillery fire from an island only miles from the north Korean coast, and into waters Pyongyang claims as its own, was a highly aggressive act. On top of that, Pyongyang needed to react militarily to enforce its claim to sovereignty over the waters south Korea had violated by its live fire drill.
Just days ago Seoul repeated its November 23 provocation, firing live artillery into the same disputed waters from the same island. This time the stakes were raised. Washington arranged for US Marines to be present on the island  while Seoul warned that a north Korean response would be met by US and south Korean air strikes on north Korean targets.  Doubtlessly, Pyongyang regarded the potential killing of US marines in an artillery barrage as far more dangerous than killing south Korean troops. Realizing this was a confrontation it could not possibly win, it wisely refrained from retaliation.
Seoul’s alignment with Washington’s strategy of maintaining unceasing pressure on Pyongyang has been evident in other ways too. The Lee government has appointed a minister of unification. The minister, Hyon In Thaek, says it is necessary for “south Korea to carve out the future of the Korean Peninsula on its initiative” with “freedom, human rights, democracy and market economy as values.”  Imagine the uproar if Pyongyang said it was going to carve out the future of the Korean peninsula on its initiative. The Institute for Policy Studies’ John Feffer points out that the word “tongil” was emblazoned on the headbands worn by south Korean marines who carried out the latest artillery barrage into north Korean waters. Tongil is the Korean word for reunification. This led Feffer to conclude that Seoul is seeking reunification by force. 
To further ratchet up military pressure, Seoul has added another live fire drill to the dozens it has already conducted this year. And this one was carried out threateningly close to the north Korean border. According to the Associated Press:
South Korea’s army said (the) planned firing drills near the land border – the 48th of their kind this year – would be the biggest wintertime joint firing exercise the army and air force had staged. It would involve 800 troops, F-15K and KF-16 jet fighters, K-1 tanks, AH-1S attack helicopters and K-9 self-propelled guns. 
Revealingly, the Associated Press pointed out that South Korea had planned to conduct 47 drills of this type this year, but decided to conduct one more owing, as one south Korean officer put it, to “tension with the North.”  This only makes sense if Seoul’s goal is to heighten tension.
Finally, while the following doesn’t compare for provocation to adding another military exercise, it does underscore the reality that Seoul is bent on provoking its northern compatriots. According to the Guardian, “For the first time in seven years, South Korea has illuminated a 30m steel Christmas tree near the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas. The practice was stopped by the previous government as it was deemed a provocative act”. 
Pyongyang’s options are limited. While the United States and south Korea are unlikely to wage hot war (north Korea could inflict too much harm on south Korea), their cold war against the north will continue, no matter what concessions Pyongyang makes. The best north Korea can hope for is a relaxation of pressure under another ROK president, but never its end. While there may, at times, be periods of detente, the only peace Washington will ever settle for is a peace on its own terms – one in which north Korea turns away from socialism and uncompromising commitment to anti-imperialism.
In the meantime, north Korea bravely carries on, steadfast in the face of enormous imperialist pressure.
1. Donald Gregg, “Obama’s North Korea strategy?”www.politico.com, November 23, 2010. http://www.politico.com/arena/perm/Donald_Gregg_142C4C3C-A583-47DA-ABA9-F610E984C95B.html
2. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.
3. The New York Times, June 12, 2008.
4. Ashley Rowland, “U.S. will take part in South Korea live-fire drill”, Stars and Stripes, December 18, 2010.
5. Kwon Tae-ho, “S.Korea, U.S. and Japan convene tripartite talks”, The Hankyoreh, December 8, 2010.
6. KCNA Blasts Puppet Minister of Unification′s Outbursts, KCNA, December 15, 2010.
7. John Feffer, “South Korea: Seeking Reunification by Live Fire?”, Institute for Policy Studies, December 20, 2010. http://www.ips-dc.org/blog/is_south_korea_seeking_reunification_by_fire_-_live_fire_that_is
8. Hyun-Jin Kim, “SKorea to stage firing drills near land border”, The Associated Press, December 22, 2010.
10. Jonathan Watts, “North Korea steps back, but South Korea remains on high alert”, The Guardian (UK), December 21, 2010.
By Stephen Gowans
Does this sound familiar?
“In South Korea, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that marines based on Yeonpyeong Island, a tiny fishing community with military bases near the Koreas’ disputed sea border, will stage one-day live-fire drills.” 
The “Marines will fire artillery to the southwest, away from North Korea”  but into North Korea’s customary law-defined territorial waters.
The North Koreans responded by notifying the South Korean military that it should “stop the provocative planned shelling from (Yeonpyeong Island)” otherwise it would unleash a “self-defensive blow” to protect its “inviolable territorial waters.” 
It should sound familiar. This is the sequence of events that led to the November 23 exchange of artillery fire between the two Koreas.
But the reports cited above aren’t from November. They’re from yesterday and today.
Yes, the South Koreans – who would have you believe they’re innocents struggling with a highly provocative and bellicose neighbor — are replaying the provocation that set off the artillery exchange of only a few weeks ago.
If Seoul were really interested in peace, you would think it would carry out its military drills in a less sensitive area.
Remember, North Korea isn’t a military giant looming threateningly over a cowering pipsqueak. Seoul’s military budget is many times larger than Pyongyang’s and the South Korean military is integrated into the world’s largest military machine; which explains why the South Koreans appear to have little fear of provoking the North Koreans again — and in exactly the same way.
“It is appalling,” says Korea expert Leonid Petrov. “If it was a bona fide need for artillery practice they have plenty of islands in the Western sea. This is simply sending a message that the South is putting pressure on the North.” 
Turning up the heat, “South Korea and the United States have agreed to bomb North Korea using aircraft if North Korea launches additional provocations”  – that is, if it responds to live-fire into its territorial waters as it did on November 23.
An idle threat? Perhaps. But it’s clear that South Korea – and its US patron – are playing a dangerous game.
This was acknowledged by General James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the US Joints Chiefs of Staff. “What you don’t want to happen out of that is for us to lose control of the escalation,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.  Notice the words “us” “control” and “escalation”.
To place this in context, South Korea plans to fire live artillery into waters that, according to international law, belong to North Korea, but according to a unilaterally defined sea border drawn by the United States in 1953, belong to South Korea.
The US-defined sea border – called the Northern Line Limit – is illegitimate, a point acknowledged by then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a 1975 classified cable. Kissinger said the US-drawn sea border was “clearly contrary to international law.” 
And in 1973, the US ambassador to South Korea pointed out that many would see South Korea and the United States as “in the wrong” if they clashed with North Korea in the disputed waters. 
The latest US-South Korean provocation is not an isolated event. Because open war with North Korea would prove too costly, Washington uses economic warfare, diplomatic isolation, and military pressure to achieve what open war would be intended to achieve: the collapse of the North Korean state.
A long list of sanctions, some dating from as long ago as 1950, keep North Koreans hungry and starved of inputs necessary to run modern agricultural and health care systems. North Korea, George W. Bush once reminded us, is the most sanctioned country on earth.
Military pressure – which keeps the North Koreans on a continual war footing – cripples their economy by diverting what would otherwise be productive resources into non-productive – though necessary – military spending.
It’s hoped that all this will sabotage North Korea’s unique brand of anti-imperialism and socialism — in the short-term to discredit it and in the long-term to make the North Korean communists go away so that the United States can secure domination of the Korean peninsula up to the Chinese border.
Washington’s junior partner on the peninsula, Seoul, will absorb the North if US policy succeeds. In preparation, the South Korean government has established the post of minister of unification. The current minister, Hyun In-taek, has talked of the necessity of “carv[ing] out the future of the Korean Peninsula” with “freedom, human rights, democracy and market economy as values.” 
There can be little doubt that had Pyongyang appointed a minister of “unification” and declared its intention to carve out the future of the Korean peninsula — with anti-imperialism and a command economy as its values — this would have been denounced far and wide as tantamount to a declaration of war. And so it would be.
War may or may not come from the latest planned South Korean provocation of its northern neighbor. But either way, the lives of millions of Koreans, of both north and south, are at risk. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Koreans are being treated as expendable lives to be cavalierly sacrificed to Washington’s quest to dominate every inch of the world’s territory it doesn’t already control. But then Korean lives – in the millions – have been sacrificed to US geopolitical ambitions before.
1. Hyung-jin Kim, Christopher Bodeeng and Matthew Lee, “US governor visits NKorea in bid to calm tensions”, Associated Press, December 16, 2010.
3. “S. Korean puppet military warned to cancel its plan for shelling from Yonphyong Island”, KCNA, December 17, 2010.
4. Tania Branigan, “South Korea to start live-fire drill on shelled island”, The Guardian (UK), December 16, 2010.
5. Kwon Tae-ho, “S.Korea, U.S. and Japan convene tripartite talks”, The Hankyoreh, December 8, 2010.
6. “US governor visits NKorea in bid to calm tensions”
7. Daniel Ten Kate and Peter S. Green, “Defending Korea line seen contrary to law by Kissinger remains U.S. policy”, Bloomberg, December 17, 2010.
9. “KCNA Blasts Puppet Minister of Unification’s Outbursts”, KCNA, December 15, 2010.
By Stephen Gowans
A series of recent newspaper articles portend more — and potentially graver — troubles ahead on the Korean peninsula.
The Guardian of December 16 reports that “South Korea will hold a live-fire drill in an area shelled by North Korea as early as Saturday.” It is unclear from the Guardian report whether the South Korean military will fire artillery from Yeonpyeong Island into customary law-defined North Korean waters, thereby reprising the provocation that touched of the artillery exchange between the two sides only a few weeks ago. But if not a direct reprise of the earlier South Korean provocation, the planned live fire exercises will certainly approximate it.
According to the article, Korea expert Leonid Petrov, “warned that the move could inflame tensions on the peninsula.”
“It is appalling. If it was a bona fide need for artillery practice they have plenty of islands in the Western sea,” he said.
“This is simply sending a message that the South is putting pressure on the North – but at the same time refuses to negotiate.”
The North Korean news agency, KCNA, notes that the South’s naval firing exercises will take place in the East and South seas as well, and will follow similar drills carried out from December 6 to December 12.
North Korea sees the South’s exercises as “escalating the military tension and confrontation.”
The South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh reported on December 8 that “South Korea and the United States have agreed to bomb North Korea using aircraft if North Korea launches additional provocations.”
It’s clear from South Korea’s response to the November 23 North Korean shelling of the South’s military garrison on Yeonpyeong Island that a similar response by North Korea to live fire into its territorial waters on Saturday will be labeled a provocation by Seoul.
This could, then, trigger a joint US-South Korea air strike on the North. Or it could simply be a move to continue to ratchet up military pressure on the North.
Either way, it’s clear who the aggressors are. Their game is dangerous.
There they go again. Those crazy, bellicose, destabilizing North Koreans are once again threatening their South Korean neighbors.
Pyongyang has appointed a minister of “unification” to oversee the takeover of the South by the North.
According to the minister, it is necessary for North Korea to carve out the future of the Korean peninsula, with anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and a command economy as its values.
He might as well have said that the North is preparing to absorb the South.
When will the provocations stop?
Oh. Hold on.
It wasn’t the North that said this. It was the South.
Hyun In-taek, a member of the South Korean government, whose title is Minister of Unification and whose mandate is to oversee the absorption of North into the South, said it is necessary for “South Korea to carve out the future of the Korean Peninsula” with “freedom, human rights, democracy and market economy as values.”
By Stephen Gowans
Only days after South Korea and the United States destabilized the Korean peninsula by holding military exercises in the Yellow Sea (and for the first time ever, in North Korea’s territorial waters) and soon after South Korea further destabilized the region by touching off a firefight between the two Koreas after lobbing artillery shells into waters Pyongyang claims as it own, the North Koreans began their own military drills.
South Korea—whose defense budget towers over that of the North—regularly holds drills by itself, and also with contingents drawn from the 28,000 US soldiers stationed on its soil and 40,000 stationed in nearby Japan. By contrast, there are no foreign troops in North Korea, and the North conducts its exercises alone.
To be sure, the North’s military drills do nothing to bring down the temperature, but they hardly compare in their destabilizing impact to the US and South Korean provocations of the last two weeks. A flyweight stepping up his sparring practice is hardly a threat to the middleweight who only goes into the ring with his super-heavyweight ally. And it’s clear that Washington and South Korea’s Lee government aren’t particularly interested in temperature-reduction anyway.
And yet, this headline appeared today in The Guardian:
It takes a lot of chutzpah to pick someone’s pocket and shout, “Stop thief!” but Washington has chutzpah aplenty, and in the Western media’s recounting of world events, Washington’s chutzpah is carefully concealed. And so it really does seem like North Korea is destabilizing South Korea, rather than the other way around.
What puts Washington’s complaint about North Korea’s military drills completely over the top is this: “South Korea is holding a nationwide set of artillery drills this week. And the United States and Japan are currently staging their largest-ever war games, including, for the the first time, South Korean observers.” And that’s not destabilizing?
Had I come across anything like the following headlines last week—which would have been a fair description of the situation from the North Korean side–I wouldn’t complain as bitterly.
Joint US-South Korea military drills are destabilizing region, says North Korea
US-South Korea wargames rehearsal for invasion, Pyongyang says
But I didn’t. Instead, I was bombarded by headlines about North Korean aggression.
And I still am.
It seems that no matter what the North Koreans do—or how destabilizing the actions of its southern neighbor and the United States are–the North Koreans will always be portrayed as the aggressors, the South Koreans as the victims, and the United States as the tough but fair peace-keeper.
If the ganging up on North Korea by the United States and South Korea–to say nothing of the Western media–weren’t enough, Washington has reminded Korea’s former colonial master, Japan, that it too has “a stake”. “We have to get to a place where there’s much more trilateral cooperation (among the US, South Korea and Japan against North Korea) than there has been in the past,” says chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, who is in Japan for discussions on creating “a truly historic trilateral” alliance–a kind of anti-North Korea three-power axis.
I guess Malcolm X was right. If you substitute “destabilize” for his original “oppress”, the following epigram pretty well sums up the dangers of newspaper reading: “If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are destabilized, and loving the people who are doing the destabilizing.”
It could also be pointed out that whether military drills are destabilizing or a way of containing “a rapidly evolving threat” depends on whose side you’re on: the side of the freedom of independent peoples to pursue their own peaceful development or the side of a military behemoth seeking to bring down another independent state.
By Stephen Gowans
“The International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary investigation into allegations that North Korean forces committed war crimes when they shelled civilian areas in South Korea and allegedly sank a South Korean warship,” according to The Washington Post of 7 December.
The North Koreans, it should be pointed out, didn’t shell civilian areas in South Korea; they shelled a South Korean military installation on Yeonpyeong Island, only eight miles from North Korea, after artillery was fired from the island into North Korea’s territorial waters. 
The North Koreans warned the South—which at the time was conducting massive military exercises with the United States—that it would retaliate if the South went ahead with its planned test firing from the island into its waters.
Pyongyang regarded the joint South Korean-US exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion, based on their substantial size (70,000 South Korean troops had been mobilized), the fact that they were taking place for the first time ever in the North’s international customary law–defined territorial waters, and involved US Marines based in Japan who were trained in amphibious assault and urban warfare. 
Despite the North’s entreaties that the South not proceed with its planned shelling, the South went ahead anyway. The North retaliated, as it warned it would and as Seoul surely knew it must.  It fired artillery at the South’s garrison on the island. While many news reports, such as the one cited above, suggest the North deliberately targeted civilians, the civilian casualties were accidental; the target was military.
The allegations that North Korea sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan—allegations which seem to owe their existence more to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s political agenda than anything else—are in tatters, the victim of an official Russian investigation and a series of independent inquiries that have punched holes in the misnamed “international”—more aptly named South Korea-plus-allies-report.  Is it any surprise that an inquiry carried out by countries that are hostile to North Korea would arrive at a conclusion that justifies their hostility? The report’s findings—that a North Korean torpedo sank the warship–resonated with Lee’s intuition, expressed well before the investigation was launched, that North Korea was to blame.  It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the report was written to justify a conclusion Lee had already arrived at, despite his own military’s initial assessment that no evidence existed to link North Korea to the mishap. 
The Cheonan–which had been operating in the shallow waters off Baengnyeong Island, only 10 miles from North Korea but 120 miles from the South Korean mainland—appears to have either run aground or struck an old mine.  But the official South Korean investigation rejected all alternative explanations, settling on the North Korea-is-guilty conclusion that members of Lee’s right-wing Grand National Party had seized upon immediately after the sinking, despite the South Korean military initially trying to dampen speculation that the North was involved. There was no evidence linking North Korea to the corvette’s sinking, Won See-hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence, told a South Korean parliamentary committee in early April. South Korea’s then defense minister Kim Tae-young backed him up, pointing out that the Cheonan’s crew had not detected a torpedo , while Lee Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the South Korean joint chiefs of staff agreed that “No North Korean warships have been detected…(in) the waters where the accident took place.”  Notice he said “accident.” Blaming the sinking on a North Korean torpedo, however, fit with what Selig Harrison, the US establishment’s foremost liberal expert on Korea describes as Lee’s goal: to “once again [seek] the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.”  So too does blaming the recent artillery exchange between the two Koreas on the North, when, in point of fact, it was the South that pulled the trigger. And so too does the ICC investigation.
While the ICC serves US interests, the United States itself refuses to submit to the court’s jurisdiction. The court could be subverted by political mischief-makers, US officials say. China, Russia and Israel also refuse to submit to the court’s purview. But Washington’s real problem with the court isn’t that frivolous charges might be brought against the country’s armed forces, but that legitimate charges most surely would be. The US record of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, to say nothing of the other theaters in which it pursues its war on resistance to US domination of Southwest Asia, could keep the ICC permanently occupied for the next decade. And Israel’s crimes—most especially those committed in Gaza–could keep the court going for years to come. Indeed, there’s a string of US and allied leaders who should be dragged before the court to stand trial—from George W. Bush to Tony Blair to Benjamin Netanyahu to Barack Obama. But they won’t be. The US, Britain, NATO and Israel have never been investigated by the ICC, and never will be, no matter how monstrous their crimes. The court exists to prosecute the weak and legitimize the crimes of the strong by ignoring them.
We have, then, a situation that is ludicrous beyond words: An ICC that is mute on US, British, NATO and Israeli war crimes—war crimes that have led to countless fatalities, the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, the collective punishment of displaced Palestinians for voting for a party that refuses to accept Israeli ethnic cleansing as legitimate, the displacement of millions of Iraqis—but is prepared to investigate the events surrounding the death of two South Korean civilians! A court that ignores the major crimes of the strong while investigating crimes that—even if they had been truly committed—would be microscopic in comparison, is an abomination against reason, justice and humanity. 
While its surface mandate may be the pursuit of justice, the ICC is every bit as much a part of the apparatus of imperialist domination as the US military and NATO are; its justice that of the powerful against the weak; its mandate to demonize the resisters and trundle them off to jail, while the imperialist architects of war crimes on a grand scale furnish the court with its prosecutors, direction, and agenda.
1. For sources see Stephen Gowans, “Wrong country blamed for artillery exchange on Korean peninsula”, what’s left, November 24, 2010 and “North Korea attacks South Korea…or is it the other way around?” What’s left, November 23, 2010.
2. Tim Beal, “Fire fight at Yeonpyeong: the manufacturing of crisis”, The Pyongyang Report, Vol 12 No 1 December 2010.
3. In order to enforce its claim to territorial waters, Pyongyang must contest the South’s exercise of military force in its waters, or its claim will be weakened. Moreover, failure to respond resolutely to the challenge would invite the South to take further liberties. See “US Ultimately to Blame for Korean Skirmishes in Yellow Sea”, what’s left, December 5, 2010.
4. See the following by Gregory Elich: “The Sinking of the Cheonan, Reviewing the Evidence,” globalresearch.ca, July 30, 2010 and “The Cheonan Incident. America’s Pretext for Threatening North Korea”, globalresearch.ca, December 6, 2010.
5. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
6. See Stephen Gowans, “The sinking of the Cheonan: Another Gulf of Tonkin incident”, what’s left, May 20, 2010.
7. See Elich.
8. Nicole Finnemann, “The sinking of the Cheonan”, Korea Economic Institute, April 1, 2010.
9. “Military leadership adding to Cheonan chaos with contradictory statements”, The Hankyoreh, March 31, 2010.
10. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.
11. I recognize that the ICC can only prosecute citizens of signatory countries or those of countries the UN Security Council—many of whose permanent members are not signatories themselves—direct the court to investigate. But this doesn’t make the actions of the court in investigating events surrounding the deaths of two civilians while ignoring large scale war crimes which have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions, any less ludicrous or any less an abomination against reason, justice and humanity.
By Stephen Gowans
There has been a lot written about the escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, tensions touched off by the South’s firing artillery shells into disputed waters in the Yellow Sea. Much of the commentary—including my own–has only tangentially addressed the key issue: how the United States’ unilateral drawing of a sea border in 1953 has thrust both sides into the position of having to continually climb to the brink of war to enforce overlapping claims to territorial waters.
The author of this tragedy—as so many other tragedies in Korea– is Washington. At the end of the Korean War, the United States and North Korea agreed that five islands, including Baengnyeong Island, in whose shallow waters the South Korean warship Cheonan sank in March, and Yeonpyeong Island, at the center of the recent exchange of artillery fire between the two sides, would remain under the South’s control. But they did not agree on a maritime demarcation line. The United States wanted to base the line on a three-nautical-mile limit, then the norm, while the North insisted on a 12-nautical-mile limit, which, by the 1970s, would become the standard in international customary law. The United States unilaterally drew a demarcation line, called the Northern Limit Line, based on a three-nautical-mile limit. In 1955, the North claim territorial waters based on a 12-nautical-mile limit.
Baengnyeong Island is only 10 miles from the North Korean coast but 120 miles from the South Korean mainland! Yeonpyeong Island is only eight miles from North Korea, and is home to a garrison of 1,000 South Korean marines. By the standards of international customary law, both islands belong to the North.
Having created a basis for unending conflict by unilaterally imposing a western maritime frontier, Washington has ensured that the intersection of the two side’s claimed territorial waters has been the site of numerous clashes. In 1999, the two Koreas’ warships skirmished over their competing maritime territorial claims. In the battle, two North Korean warships were sunk and 30 North Korean sailors lost their lives. Seventy were wounded. In clashes in 2002, a South Korean warship sank, with six lives lost. In November of last year, a North Korean naval vessel went down in flames after a battle with a South Korean warship. In March, the South Korean corvette Cheonan sunk off Baengnyeong Island, only 10 miles from the North Korean coast. The South accused the North of torpedoing the ship, but Pyongyang vehemently denied the charge. That North Korea would sink a South Korean warship operating close to its coast—that any country would attack a warship of a hostile state operating in its waters–is not implausible. Seoul’s charge that the North was the culprit therefore had a ring of truth to it, but there is evidence which points to the ship either running aground or hitting an old mine. In August, the North fired 110 artillery rounds near Yeonpyeong. And only weeks ago a South Korean warship fired warning shots at a North Korean fishing vessel that had crossed the Northern Limit Line. “This is a no man’s land,” observes Korea scholar Bruce Cumings. “You have an incident waiting to happen.”
The key to why the North and South regularly clash in these waters lies in the choices Washington’s unilateral border fixing inevitably create. Pyongyang and Seoul can either enforce sovereignty over their overlapping territorial claims through military means. Or not, in which case they cede sovereignty. The North could avoid confrontation with the South if it simply accepted the Northern Limit Line. Likewise, the South could avoid confrontation with the North, if it accepted a sea border based on international customary law. But neither side plans to capitulate, and so both sides carry out military activity in waters the other slide claims as its own. Failing to do this—and choosing not to respond to the other side’s provocations—would amount to an implicit recognition that the waters belong to the other side.
This can be seen in two incidents that happened roughly one year apart. Late last year, the North threatened to fire artillery into the disputed waters. The South denounced the threat as a brazen provocation, and warned that it would respond resolutely. Seoul’s agitation, reported The New York Times, was sparked by concern that if the North carried through with its threat it would “enforce its claims to an area currently held by the South.” The only way the South could contest the North’s sovereignty enforcement action was to counter-attack. Failing to do so would implicitly recognize the North’s territorial claim to the waters.
Last month, the roles were reversed. Now it was the South threatening to fire artillery into the same waters and it was the North denouncing the planned action as an abominable provocation. And the North’s reason for agitation was exactly the same as the South’s one year earlier. As the North Korean Foreign Ministry explained on November 24: “The ulterior aim sought by the (South) is to create the impression that the (North) side recognized the waters off the islet as their ‘territorial waters’, in case that there was no physical counter-action on the part of the former. “
In both cases, the firing of artillery into the disputed waters was seen as a sovereignty enforcement action by the other side. In order to counter the claim—and enforce its own sovereignty over the waters–the other side had to respond militarily. This is so because, by definition, a country’s boundaries represent the area in which its government exercises a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. The clashes in the Yellow Sea can be viewed as one side trying to demonstrate that it exercises a monopoly over the use of force in the contested area, and the other side trying to do the same.
As we know, the South did fire into the disputed waters, provoking a North Korean response, as Seoul surely knew must come. Indeed, the North had issued stern warnings that it would retaliate. While some news reports said the South fired toward the North, thus making the provocation all the more flagrant, Pyongyang acknowledged that, on the contrary, the South fired away from the North Korean mainland, but still “inside the territorial waters of the (North) no matter in which direction (the South Korean shells were) fired.”
Being based on international customary law, the North’s claim to the disputed waters is superior to that of the South, which rests on an outdated norm, and Washington’s unilateral border fixing. Pyongyang has urged Washington repeatedly to sign a peace treaty to replace the armistice which brought open hostilities to an end in 1953—and which leaves the two Koreas technically at war. Settling the disputed western sea border would be part of a formal peace. But Washington regularly rejects Pyongyang’s pleas for an official end to the war. After one such request, then Secretary of State Colin Powell replied, “We don’t do non-aggression pacts or treaties, things of that nature.” And after the latest skirmish, Washington rejected China’s call for discussions to defuse the tensions. Instead, it escalated tension by dispatching the aircraft carrier George Washington to conduct joint military exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea, including in waters China declares as its own.
In 1945 Washington drew a border bisecting Korea. It later set up a puppet government in the South to crush the People’s Committees that Koreans had organized to govern their country after decades of Japanese colonial rule. The People’s Committees were allowed to thrive in the North, and in 1948 formed the basis of a new government led by Kim Il-Sung, a famed guerilla leader who had fought the Japanese. In the South, Washington restored Japanese collaborators to positions of prominence. Divided by Washington, the two Koreas, one anti-imperialist, fiercely independent and progressive, the other a near fascist state of collaborators with Japanese colonialism and later U.S. neocolonialism, were set against each other. And so they remain today, and will remain, regularly climbing to the brink of war in the Yellow Sea as the North challenges a unilaterally imposed sea border—one at odds with international customary law–and the South seeks to enforce it.