In 2010 the actions of North Korea once again threatened regional peace in Asia, a problem made worse by the continuing standoff over the country’s nuclear programme. An internal power struggle and an ailing economy have helped to make the country even more unpredictable, and with its track record of ignoring international pressure the possibility of the situation deteriorating into open conflict cannot be ignored.

Conflict between North and South KoreaEdit

Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-il and his Generals.

The end of the Korean War in 1953 saw the Korean peninsula divided in two, roughly along the 38th Parallel. Since the war the two Koreas have diverged dramatically, with South Korea developing rapidly into a successful democratic state whilst the North has continued to be ruled by a hardline communist dictatorship, first under Kim Il-sung and then under his son, Kim Jong-il. 2010 saw Kim Jong-il apparently preparing the way for the succession of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, and the instability caused by this handover of power might be one reason for the current crisis in North South relations.

The current crisis in relations has its origins in the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March 2010. The ship was sunk in disputed waters near Baengnyeong Island, and 46 South Korean sailors were killed. Investigators eventually blamed the loss of the ship on a torpedo attack from a North Korean submarine, a version of events disputed by North Korea. The UN Security Council, whilst condemning the sinking, did not explicitly blame North Korea, with China preventing tougher action against its ally.

In November the crisis flared again when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeyong Island, again near to the disputed maritime border between the two states. Four people were killed, and the South returned fire. Since that time both China and Russia have called for restraint, whilst the United States has declared its strong support for South Korea, joining with the country for military exercises. The South Korean government has strengthened its forces on Yeonpyeyong Island, and has said it will use air strikes if it is attacked again. Live fire exercises held by the South near the border in December were denounced by the North; the North Korean Defence Minister Kim Yongchun said it was ready for a “sacred war” against the South. At the time of writing the Security Council has not been able to agree a position on the Yeonpyeyong incident.

Various explanations of the current crisis have been suggested. Some analysts believe the North Korean aggression is linked to solidifying Kim Jong-un’s position in power, whilst others argue it is a ploy designed to extract concessions over the dispute concerning North Korea’s nuclear programme. North Korea’s economy is also believed to be a factor; the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, has cut the flow of aid to the North, causing its economy to deteriorate still further.

North Korea’s Nuclear ProgrammeEdit

In October 2006 North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test, announcing to the world that it had joined the nuclear club. International condemnation of North Korea’s actions was swift, and Security Council Resolution 1718 demanded that the country eliminate all nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. After sometimes difficult talks a deal was made in February 2007 whereby North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear reactor in return for aid; however, problems flared again in 2009 when the country launched a long range rocket. North Korea claimed it had put a communications satellite into space, but most saw it as a test of a missile that could threaten the United States. Angered by international criticism, it pulled out of the six nation disarmament talks and expelled nuclear inspectors; it then conducted an underground nuclear test and announced its ability to enrich uranium. The UN has responded with fresh sanctions, including inspection of North Korean ships and a ban on arms sales.

North Korea’s uranium enrichment plant is now well developed, and it is thought that the country has enough plutonium to make six bombs. The UN has accused the North Korean regime of exporting nuclear technology to Iran, Myanmar and Syria, in defiance of UN bans. The situation is highly fluid, and the nuclear disarmament process remains stalled.

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