Joint U.S.-South Korean Military Exercises in Yellow Sea Raise the Ante

Yeonpyeong IslandThe recent exchange of artillery fire in Korea is, for many commentators at least, as readily explainable as any other outbreak of hostilities on the peninsula. The North is manufacturing a crisis in advance of Kim Jong-eun’s succession to power. Or else it’s attempting to shock the region into resuming multilateral negotiations where it might extract needed economic concessions.

There is always enough circumstantial evidence to bolster these speculations. “Guerrilla polling” in at least one Northern province has suggested a reverberant (if imprecise) public skepticism about the country’s leadership transition. And Beijing and Moscow have been quick to urge a return to six-party talks in the region in light of the recent violence.

It is also easier to graft these potential motives onto the most recent attacks than it should have been when the same speculation swirled around the Cheonan incident. Importantly, rather than deny complicity, both the North and the South have acknowledged a mutual exchange of fire. They differ only in their attribution of culpability. North Korea has alleged that it was responding to a South Korean shell that landed in Northern waters during a military exercise, while South Korea has insisted its ships were firing away from the disputed border. The North’s acknowledgment of the incident (and attempts to justify its behavior) feeds the speculation that it was acting purposively.

It has been widely reported that the South’s military exercises were planned months in advance, which suggests that the North may have premeditated the attack. The same is true of the joint US-Korean exercises slated to occur in the Yellow Sea, the continuation of which can only now be seen as an escalation of the new tensions.

Washington’s reaction, however, has had little to do with Pyongyang and everything to do with Beijing. Contrary to its decision in July, when the United States moved its joint exercises with South Korea out of the Yellow Sea in response to Chinese protests, the U.S. is holding steadfastly to its chosen location for the exercises. “It’s really important that Beijing lead here,” Admiral Mike Mullen told Fareed Zarakia, suggesting that the Chinese should confront North Korea in more open terms.

But Admiral Mullen’s plea for the Chinese to “lead” may have less to do with leadership than the remark implies. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has already spoken out against “provocative military acts” on the peninsula. It’s a bit of a hedge so far as North Korea’s critics are concerned, but it also allows for the rather obvious conclusion that staging military exercises immediately across a disputed border or in a sensitive economic zone is something of a provocation itself — a fact that has been puzzlingly overlooked in the remarks of our own indignant commentators. “Call it a message,” the Washington Post quotes one senior U.S. military officer, “but we believe in freedom of navigation.” China’s far more piqued public statements on the issue of military exercises in the Yellow Sea indicate that it has not missed the point.

I don’t know why North Korea shelled a small South Korean island. But Chinese cooperation in containing the incident, at least on American terms, is unlikely to be forthcoming so long as the United States’ ulterior motive in asserting its other regional prerogatives is so readily discernible.

Pressing China on this issue is tantamount to rejecting its call for a quick return to six-party talks. So what now? War? More sanctions? As the North made clear in a recent exhibition of its “stunning” new uranium enrichment facilities, sanctions have done little to curb its nuclearization. If anything, they have only provided the country with new concessions to seek by allegedly manufacturing new crises like this one. Following a stern electoral rebuke of his party’s post-Cheonan hard line toward the North, South Korean President Myung-bak Lee may have been slowly warming to the virtues of a more engagement-oriented approach. He should shut out the voices that would decry “rewarding bad behavior” or “appeasing North Korea” by seeking further engagement now. If the North is indeed seeking economic concessions, then its actions are reflective of a power structure in which the South and the United States ultimately hold the upper hand. Hapless sanctions and power struggles with China can only prevent the United States and South Korea from wielding this upper hand constructively.

Peter Certo is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus as well as the Institute of Policy Studies Balkans Project.