The recent tensions on the Korean border could escalate unintentionally. It is time for Beijing to mediate and take the initiative to resolve the crisis, says DW’s Alexander Freund.
If you have not visited the Korean Peninsula, you cannot fully understand the absurdity of the inter-Korean border conflict. Soldiers on both sides of the border stand on permanent alert, looking as if spellbound toward the enemy territory. Just across the border are three blue barracks where no one has had anything more to say to each other since 1953; the microphone cable on the center of the table there separates the communist North from the Westernized South.
Over the course of the years, each country put up higher and higher flagpoles and hoisted bigger and bigger flags in rival demonstrations of power. As the icy wind began to cause problems, the two countries secretly agreed that while the North’s flag flies higher, the South’s will be bigger in size.
But normal citizens of the two countries seldom get to see the full absurdity of what is happening on the border: between the populations of the two Koreas lies a four-kilometer (2.5-mile) wide and 250-kilometer-long death strip called the “Demilitarized Zone” that separates the hostile states.
It remains the ugliest scar of the Cold War. For decades, soldiers of each side were exposed to the vociferous propaganda of the other via loudspeakers, but this seemed ineffective and was gradually stopped. Earlier this month, however, two South Korean soldiers stepped on alleged North Korean mines and were seriously wounded. This prompted the South to start broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda into North Korean territory once more. The North reacted with annoyance by firing in the direction of the South Korean loudspeakers. The South returned fire – and shortly afterwards, North Korea’s communist rulers put its troops on full alert, declaring a “quasi state of war” on the border.
And that shows how very dangerous this absurd theater can get. This trading of provocations was a ritual in the Cold War era. When Seoul conducts its regular joint military exercises with the US, Pyongyang usually reacts with missile tests. Understandably, the South, for its part, reacts sharply to the North Korean nuclear ambitions and missile tests.
But these provocations have an explosive power that can get out of control. One must not forget that the two states have technically been in a state of war since 1953; they agreed only on an armistice, not a peace treaty. Small skirmishes easily become serious clashes. In 2010, North Korea massively shelled a South Korean island because it felt threatened by a military exercise in the South. In addition, a large South Korean warship was sunk, probably because it hit a North Korean mine.
Beijing’s help needed
One of the main problems is that there is no dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang that could defuse a serious crisis. The North’s dynastic system has put in power a young leader known for his brutality. But even domestic “political cleansings” and a demonstration of power to the outside world have failed to remove doubts about him, as things are simply running too badly in this self-declared “paradise of the workers and peasants.” On the other side, the South shows little willingness to talk. There, too, the hardliners have the upper hand. This is why such rituals could spark a large-scale fire way too easily and ultimately burn everything down – without anyone really wanting it to happen.
It is obvious that the two Koreas cannot resolve this conflict by themselves. For this reason, China needs to show a greater commitment to resolving the crisis. Beijing can do much more than it has previously to put pressure on the North, because without Beijing’s support Pyongyang would collapse. Moreover, China has a certain amount of trust in the South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The US does not want any armed escalation on the Peninsula either. So China must take the initiative.
The goal is not a Korean reunification, because nobody really wants that. But with China’s mediation we can at least find a way for the two nations to engage in a dialogue so that the skirmishes do not inadvertently turn into a full-fledged war.