On the brink, indeed
Once again the Korean Peninsula is on the brink of war. The Korean War that had broken out in 1950 ended on July 23, 1953 with an Armistice Agreement. Until today there has been no peace treaty between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), that share the Korean Peninsula along the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) as implacable enemies. This heavily guarded dividing line has been and continues to be without any doubt the world’s most dangerous border.
High tensions on and around the Korean Peninsula are nothing new. There have repeatedly been acute crises where the outbreak of open war seemed imminent. Currently, the world looks once again with great anxiety at this dangerous region, where the security interests of all the world’s major powers, of the United States, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China and Japan, clash.
While the impoverished North can be described as a Confucian monarchy with a Stalinist state apparatus, the prosperous South is a vibrant democracy that just in these turbulent times is in the midst of a presidential election that has been prematurely called because of the impeachment of the sitting president.
While South Korea is a firm ally of the United States, China is the vital backer of North Korea. Tokyo, which has a rather ambiguous relation with Seoul due to the atrocities the Japanese committed when they ruled Korea as a colony, has no military stake on the Peninsula but, as an immediate neighbor, is of course heavily affected by what happens there. The Russians are immediate neighbors, sharing a land border with North Korea.
The devastation the three year Korean War had brought to the Peninsula is not forgotten although most of the Koreans on both sides of border who lived through the disaster have died. These days shocking scenarios are being presented of what would happen if war broke out once again. Of course, there are the weapons of mass destruction, including some atomic bombs, that are in the North’s arsenal and that might be fired not only on the South but also on Japan, most particularly on American bases on the Japanese archipelago. But even if the conflict would not go nuclear it would bring terrible havoc over the Korean people. Seoul, is only 35 miles from the DMZ and is within easy reach of the North Korean artillery, which is said to have thousands of guns aimed at this city of some 10 million inhabitants.

Since many years the international community has declared sanctions of all kind against North Korea. All this has had practically no effect on the leadership in Pyongyang. To a certain extent this is the result of an exceptionally brutal regime of oppression and of an exceptionally great capacity for suffering of the North Korean people. Even the great famine that afflicted the country between 1994 and 1998 and that caused over one million deaths did not shake the system. Most important, however, is the logistic support that North Korea has been receiving form China. If Beijing were to stop the supply of fuel to North Korea and suspended its external trade with the hermit country, the regime in Pyongyang would most certainly collapse. The questions, therefore, is why Beijing does not pull the plug and let the North Korean regime go down the tube. The question is all the more relevant as North Korea is a neighbour of China and not the US and, if open war were to break out on the Korean Peninsula, this would be a prime disaster for the Chinese, probably sinking their economy, and most certainly not for the Americans who once again, like in World War I and World War II, would see their homeland safe while the combatants destroyed each other.
Of course, most of the analyses about the relations between the People’s Republic and North Korea are idle speculation. But there are a few facts that may explain the reluctance of the Chinese government to see the North Korean regime collapse. First of all, a disintegration of North Korea with a population of some 25 million people would be a huge humanitarian disaster spilling into the neighbourhood, most notably China and South Korea. One should not forget that at time of the Cold War and prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall the German Democratic Republic, though far behind the Federal Republic of Germany, was far better off than today’s North Korea.
But there is also a significant historic reason why China cannot afford to let North Korea disappear from the map. A re-unification of the two Koreas would entail that the American allies of the South would again be operating on the whole Peninsula up to the border with China. The last time the Americans were there was during the Korean War and their troops were chased to the South thanks mostly to the military support Mao Zedong gave Pyongyang. Around 300, 000 Chinese soldiers gave their life for driving away the Americans, a sacrifice that no leader in Beijing can easily forsake.
(The writer is Far East correspondent, Neue Zurcher Zeitung in Tokyo)
Urs Schoettli