The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Exploded mines and approaching crisis

By Korea Herald

Published : June 20, 2024 - 05:31

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Following the battle of balloons between South Korea and North Korea with leaflets and trash, ominous scuffles are continuing in the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula. According to a briefing by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff on Monday, dozens of North Korean soldiers were killed or injured when landmines exploded around the border. Separately, dozens of North Korean soldiers crossed the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and retreated to the north of the line after receiving warning shots from South Korean troops. This series of incidents on the border is disturbing in that it shows that the Korean Peninsula is a dangerous place where the war has not ended and that the possibility of armed conflict on the border is increasing.

What happened on the armistice line over the past few days is reminiscent of the wooden-box mine incident in August 2015, and concerns over the suffocating war of nerves are also flaring up again. To prevent a similar crisis, it is necessary to actively promote preventive measures instead of neglecting the situation as it is now.

Above all, the South should establish a communication channel with the North to prevent an accidental collision or an unintended escalation. Given the current hard-line responses of both Koreas, similar incidents are highly likely within the next few weeks, which will serve as an excuse for the more extensive exchange of fire between the two Koreas. Notably, attention should be paid to the North Korean military's violation of the MDL. The Joint Chiefs of Staff explained the situation as a "simple invasion" caused by mistakes. However, it is also possible that the movement involves checking the South Korean military's response posture and accumulating data to prepare for actual gun battles in the future.

In addition to preventing accidental clashes, diplomatic efforts are needed to alleviate the escalating tension between the two Koreas. Since the collapse of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi in February 2019, North Korea has been expressing fierce dissatisfaction with South Korea. Since the Yoon Suk Yeol government was launched in South Korea in May 2022, it has continued to demonstrate provocative actions. Military tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to rise as North Korea relies on brinkmanship, a super-hard response. The Yoon government has also consistently responded in a hard-line way, so it has yet to find a breakthrough to ease tensions.

During the past 30 years, when talks with South Korea or the US were maintained, North Korea refrained from enhancing its nuclear weapons capabilities. But when there is no dialogue or negotiation, it has shown the characteristic of accelerating nuclear tests and missile development without interference. Therefore, dialogue offers at least a chance to prevent aggravation of the North Korean nuclear issue. Since it is an opportunity to urge North Korea to stop hostile actions and comply with the Armistice Agreement, dialogue and negotiation are essential for South Korea.

There are numerous options if South Korea pursues dialogue. Establishing a direct dialogue channel with North Korea is the best approach. North Korea would not welcome the offer of dialogue because the current relationship is at a nadir. Still, if the South provides incentives for accepting dialogue, the North may change its mind. It is worth recalling the situation where inter-Korean dialogue began in January 2018 when North Korea abruptly changed its attitude after executing exceptionally provocative acts until the end of 2017.

Getting help from China or Russia is also necessary to establish a channel for inter-Korean dialogue. Unfortunately, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration's focus on the Korea-US alliance and cooperation with the US and Japan has been aggravating the South Korea-China and South Korea-Russia relationships. Perhaps the Yoon administration has decided that downgrading ties with China and Russia is necessary for the Korea-US alliance. However, that would be a grave misconception. Positive relations with China and Russia are vital. The US cannot oppose South Korea's positive management of relations with China or Russia because the US cannot change South Korea's geopolitical conditions. If the US demands that the Korea-China or Korea-Russia relationship be downgraded, that would harm the alliance itself due to geopolitical conditions.

One thing to add is that while managing Korea-China and Korea-Russia relations is reasonable, excessive concessions beyond necessary should not be allowed. Recently, President Yoon Suk Yeol returned from a tour of three Central Asian countries but did not attend the Summit on Peace in Ukraine held in Switzerland. Leaders and representatives of 92 nations and eight international organizations joined the meeting. Except for US President Joe Biden, most of the G7 leaders attended the summit. If Mr. Yoon had participated in the meeting where global figures agonized together for peace in Ukraine, he could have reaffirmed his image as a worldwide leader along with the G7 leaders. It is difficult to understand why he missed the meeting, as he has repeatedly stressed that he aims for Korea to be a global pivotal state.

If he skipped the meeting because he feared Russia, he cannot avoid the contempt that South Korea is not a pivotal nation but rather a global peripatetic state that had lost its balance and drifted. If practical diplomacy centered on national interests is developed according to reasonable diplomatic coordinates, Korea will not be ridiculed as a drifting country. If one considers other countries' situations and maintains a prudent attitude, one will not be unnecessarily classified as an enemy. Otherwise, Korea will always be the subject of neglect, mockery and conflicts, with one-sided diplomacy focused on a specific country, so-called value diplomacy that ignores practical interests and partisan diplomacy that always opposes the other party's policies. In particular, unnecessary tragedies that deprive young soldiers of their lives, whether in the South or the North, will not stop on a Korean Peninsula where the DMZ continues to exist.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is an adjunct professor at Sogang University. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.