‘An outright military provocation and an open declaration of war against us.’ That, at least, is how North Korea’s state-controlled media saw last week’s Proliferation Security Initiative military exercise between Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States.
Pyongyang has made no secret of its disdain for the initiative, especially with South Korea hosting the exercises for the first time on October 13-14 off the south-eastern port of Busan. Seoul’s decision to host the exercises, this time dubbed Eastern Endeavor 10, was announced in May after its investigators concluded that North Korea had torpedoed the Cheonan warship two months earlier, killing dozens of sailors. Pyongyang has, of course, denied having done any such thing, but South Korea’s position is backed by the other three participants in last week’s activities.
The PSI is a voluntary multinational coalition, and was established to tackle the illegal transfer of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD), their means of delivery (e.g. ballistic missiles) and related issues. The four states participating last week are among its strongest advocates, but there’s been broad support for it around Asia. Singapore and New Zealand, for example, have both joined in previous military exercises, while India, Indonesia and Malaysia have said they support the PSI’s general principles, but haven’t joined the PSI as formal participants due to legal and other considerations. Even landlocked Mongolia signed a ship boarding agreement with the United States in 2007. (Although Mongolia is by no means a major maritime power, its commitment signals its government’s interest in deepening security ties with Washington to balance its more powerful neighbours).
Yet while the initiative has been broadly popular in the region (and has given South Korea’s allies an opportunity to show some solidarity in the wake of the Cheonan incident) it has left some regional powers cold.
The North Koreans, needless to say, hate the PSI because they’ve been its main target. However, China also opposes the PSI, partly because it annoys their North Korean neighbour, but also because Chinese entities themselves are often accused of exporting proliferation-sensitive technologies to countries whose governments have aspirations to acquiring WMD.
What was perhaps most interesting about the latest exercise was that it saw Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the South Korean Navy simulate their first joint interception so close to their home waters (their previous involvement in multinational exercises has been in the RIMPAC series, held off the coast of Hawaii).
Clearly it has been lost on the North Koreans that their aggressive behavior has helped promote unprecedented military cooperation between Japan and South Korea (and led them to set aside, for now at least, longstanding historical tensions and persistent territorial disputes). And state media outlets appear to have compounded the problem by threatening all manner of horrors on their neighbour. The Minju Joson, the official daily paper of the North Korean government, blasted the drills as a ‘naval blockade’ and its host as a ‘puppet regime (that has) revealed its criminal plot to ruin the hard-won atmosphere for dialogue and peace and to drive inter-Korean ties to the edge of a war by hosting the PSI.’
North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea for its part termed the exercise a ‘declaration of an all-out confrontation against the DPRK’ and ‘an extremely dangerous act of pushing the inter-Korean relations to the brink of war.’ The Committee went on to warn that if the aggressors achieve ‘their ambition of invading the DPRK in utter disregard of dialogue, inter-Korean relations and peace,’ North Korea would ‘wipe them out to the last man and blow up their strongholds.’ Rodong Sinmun, the official daily of the North Korean ruling communist party, chimed in warning that Pyongyang would increase its armed forces a thousand-fold to counter these US military threats.
But for all Minju Joson’s bluster about how last week’s exercise was designed for ‘seizing, inspecting and searching our ships and blockading our ports,’ most PSI-related activities involve sharing intelligence regarding possible WMD-related shipments, collaboration on detecting financial transactions for WMD-related sales and decisions to deny export or transit rights for suspect illicit WMD materials.
The reasons why Pyongyang is concerned were underscored by the fact that it was actually a North Korean ship that helped give birth to the PSI. In December 2002, the US and Spanish governments cooperated to intercept the So San, a merchant vessel sailing under the North Korean flag but not registered there, in international waters in the Mediterranean. Although Spanish Special Forces found short-range ballistic missiles and conventional missile warheads after they forcibly boarded the ship, they had to release the vessel two days later when the Yemeni government declared it had purchased the weapons.
In fact, it wasn’t illegal at that time to transfer short-range ballistic missiles (an oversight that has since been corrected by UN Security Council resolutions, which now explicitly enjoin Pyongyang from engaging in WMD and missile-related sales), but the original legal complications prompted the George W. Bush administration to launch the PSI as a way of encouraging maximum cooperation against WMD-related transfers.
But despite international concerns about North Korea’s WMD ambitions, the South Korean government under President Roh Moo-hyun restricted its role within PSI to that of an observer and opposed US lobbying over PSI as it sought to improve ties with Pyongyang through engagement and reassurance. US lobbying efforts were redoubled after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006 and resumed test launching long-range ballistic missiles that year.
It’s clear that whatever the personal tensions between Roh and Bush, the main South Korean concern was to avoid confronting its neighbour over maritime security issues, and the country seemed willing to accept what were up until a few years ago quite routine armed clashes with North Korea. The Cheonan incident was, though, a step too far, because it suggested that even if Seoul kept its distance from the PSI, its vessels could still be in harm’s way.
Yet although the sinking of the Cheonan was enough to persuade Seoul to reluctantly join the PSI as a full member, Beijing still opposes the initiative. Chinese officials have indicated they believe that the PSI could violate international law and national sovereignty and they also share South Korean worries that harassing North Korean shipping could prove counterproductive in efforts to persuade Pyongyang to rejoin the Six-Party denuclearization talks. In fact, while Washington was lobbying Seoul to participate fully in the PSI, Beijing was campaigning for South Korea to stay out.
Ultimately, as useful as South Korea’s full support is for the PSI, China’s opposition still leaves a serious problem in constraining WMD-related transfers from North Korea. The strenuous efforts made by Kim Jong-Il to secure Beijing’s endorsement of his son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor show just how much sway China still has over Pyongyang’s policies—more than any other country. Yet it’s believed that PSI-restricted exports may still be leaving North Korea via Chinese territory, which lies between North Korea and the Middle East states (such as Iran and Syria) thought to be most eager to acquire WMD and missile technologies.
All this means that although the Barack Obama administration has been right to set aside the fact that this initiative was undertaken by the Bush administration by continuing support for the PSI, this just won’t be enough. While the successful lobbying of South Korea to come fully onboard is welcome, it’s important that the US administration also lobby China to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions and limit North Korea’s WMD-related exports.
Formally joining the PSI might be a step too far for Beijing, but there’s still plenty it can do short of this to deny South Korea’s belligerent neighbour the chance to act on the threats it routinely issues.