The Korean powderkeg could ignite a regional war

The simmering crisis in the Korean Peninsula is causing growing concern in Washington and Beijing of the risk a wider regional conflict. Exchanges of heavy artillery by North and South Korea last week sparked worldwide alarm. A powerful US Navy battle group led by the carrier USS George Washington, which reportedly carries nuclear weapons, is now in Korean waters.

By Eric S. Margolis

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Published: Sun 28 Nov 2010, 9:36 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

Why did North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong-il ignite this crisis soon after revealing his nation was enriching uranium that could produce nuclear weapons? The obvious answer: the old North Korean shake-down designed to get South Korea, Japan and the United States to pay Pyongyang to be good. It has worked before and will likely again. Efforts by North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il to boost his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, into power could have played a role in the attack.

But there was also a deeper reason. Kim Jong-il and South Korea’s rightwing President, Lee Myung-bak detest one another. Kim brands Lee an American “stooge.” The South Korean president denounces Kim as a tyrant and demented despot. The sinking last March of a South Korean naval vessel by what most believe was a North Korean midget submarine hugely embarrassed Lee and his US patrons.

They could not retaliate because North Korea’s long-ranged guns dug into caves in the Demilitarised Zone could turn Seoul, only 37 km away, into what Kim threatened, “a sea of fire.” So long as Seoul is held hostage by the North, there is not much South Korea or the US can do – so long as North Korea’s patron, China, protects the north.

President Lee was blasted by many South Koreans and lost huge face. Now, it has happened a second time. Score: Kim 2/Lee and the US 0.

Face is very important in Asia. North Korea claims to be the only “authentic Korea,” and denounces the south as an “American colony.” Interestingly, until last year, South Korea’s 687,000-man armed forces were under US command (and are still in wartime). Nor should we forget that ailing “Dear Leader” Kim has vowed to “liberate” South Korea before his death.

Most North-South crises soon subside. But much will now depend on the US response. After last March’s warship sinking, the US rushed a carrier battle group to North Korea’s eastern coastal waters. North Korea made rude gestures at America’s naval might – and then ignored the US fleet.

This time around, enraged Washington may opt for more aggressive measures. These could include air and missile strikes, mining North Korean ports or seizing North Korean vessels on the high seas. But all such actions are likely to provoke bombardment of Seoul and heavy land fighting. The US Navy, always renowned for boldness and élan, may enter the narrow Yellow Sea that is three-quarters surrounded by China, Korea, and southern Japan. The northern end of the Yellow Sea is one of China’s most sensitive, strategic areas, giving access to southern Manchuria, Shandong Province, the port of Lushun and its nuclear submarine base, and the maritime approaches to Tianjin-Beijing.

Manchuria, bordering North Korea, is a key Chinese military-industrial region. This vast, resource-rich region was the epicenter of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War that changed the face of Asia and sparked the 1917 Russian Revolution.

If US warships and aircraft enter this sensitive area, chances of a China-US clash would rise sharply. It’s even possible North Korea might move to provoke a clash. In any event, China cannot allow a US fleet to operate in its most important waters, any more than the US would permit a Chinese fleet to demonstrate in Chesapeake Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

Washington is wisely pressing China to rein in its excitable North Korean ally. Beijing has no desire for war at this time. China’s strategy is to shore up North Korea to prevent its collapse and takeover by South Korea — which would transform the north into another US military base pointed right at the “Dongebi,” China’s northeastern flank. Japan does not want a united Korea, either.

Could a terminally ill Kim Jong-il roll the dice and try to make good on his vow to “liberate” South Korea?

Eric Margolis is a veteran US journalist

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