The best situation for the Korean Peninsula to be in has been clear for quite some time now—free of nuclear weapons, with a formal peace treaty and integrated into East Asian economic and diplomatic institutions. Sadly, 2010 was a bad year for progress on all three of these aspirations.
Three events were particularly troubling. In March, North Korea sank the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean corvette, firing a torpedo from a submarine that killed 46 sailors. Then, in early November, North Korean officials showed visiting American scientists a new uranium enrichment facility, consisting of some 2000 recently constructed centrifuges. And finally, in late November, the North Koreans launched an artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong Island, a South Korean possession located in the disputed border region, which killed two South Korean soldiers and two civilians.
Needless to say, North Korea has excuses for all of these incidents. In the case of the Cheonan, Pyongyang consistently denied having anything to do with it, despite the findings of an international inquiry to the contrary. On the question of its nuclear programme, Kim Jong-il’s regime claims the facility is intended to manufacture fuel for nuclear power. However, uranium enrichment can also be used to make weapons-grade fissile material. (Until now, North Korea has used the plutonium produced by its Yongbyon nuclear facility to manufacture fissile material for its nuclear explosive devices, including those it detonated in 2006 and 2009).
As for the Yeonpyeong shelling, North Korea accepts responsibility for that attack, but claims it followed a South Korean military exercise that violated the Northern Limit Line, the maritime sea border in the Yellow Sea, as well as earlier provocative joint Korea-US military drills.
Meanwhile, the Six-Party Talks involving China, Japan, Russia, the two Koreas and the United States, which were established in 2003 to bring about North Korea’s de-nuclearization in return for various concessions, remain deadlocked over verification of Pyongyang’s claims. Talks haven’t taken place since December 2008, with Pyongyang formally withdrawing from them in April 2009, saying that it refused to participate further in the process. Admittedly, it has since offered to return, and most recently has dropped earlier demands for the lifting of UN sanctions and a US commitment to discuss a peace treaty. But South Korea and the United States, under its policy of ‘strategic patience,’have demanded that North Korea give some concrete indication that it will actually make major nuclear concessions.
It’s unclear what, exactly, prompted North Korea’s actions last year, although one likely explanation is that it was an effort by the regime to help demonstrate ‘toughness’ in the face of foreign pressure of Kim Jong-un—the youngest son of Kim Jong-il and his presumed successor.