By Stephen Gowans
There are three key facts that place the brinkmanship being played out on the Korean peninsula into perspective. With these facts providing the context, the recent behavior of south Korea is revealed to be that of a local bully acting on behalf of a much larger global one.
The first key fact is that north Korea is a military pipsqueak in comparison with the militaries that have taken an actively hostile stance towards it. South Korea’s military budget is many times larger than north Korea’s, and the south Korean military is integrated into the world’s preeminent military machine, the US armed forces. Close to 30,000 US troops are stationed on Korean soil; 40,000 in nearby Japan can be deployed quickly to increase US military power on the peninsula. US submarines lurk on the edges of north Korea’s territorial waters. US spy planes fly high over its territory. And US strategic nuclear missiles are targeted on north Korean sites. To think that north Korea poses a danger to south Korea is to think that a flyweight boxer is a threat to a middleweight backed by the world’s superheavyweight champion. The best a flyweight can do is strike back if attacked and inflict some damage, knowing he’ll be pulverized in the conflict. The north Koreans recognize the gross imbalance in power and do what a military pipsqueak can only do: develop the most formidable deterrents it can while seeking peace.
The north Korean leadership is transformed by US officials and their media echo chamber from a non-threat into a menacing threat by being depicted as mad and unpredictable. Only in this way can a weak country be turned into a danger. But as a former US ambassador to south Korea, Donald Gregg, put it: “We demonize [Kim Jong Il] as a ‘nut case,’ but I have talked to Russians, Chinese, South Koreans and Americans who have met with him at length, and all say he is extremely intelligent. What Kim wants is sustained, serious talks with the US, leading to a comprehensive peace treaty.” 
The second key fact is that the United States has sought the destruction of the north Korean state for the last 60 years. And the way it has tried to bring about this demise– apart from going to war with the DPRK in the early 1950s – is to:
• Isolate north Korea diplomatically.
• Subject it to the longest campaign of economic warfare in modern history (stretching all the way back to 1950).
• Continually threaten Pyongyang militarily to place it on a constant war footing that depletes its resources and cripples its economy.
Open hostilities may have come to a close in 1953 with the signing of an armistice, but the United States and its south Korean marionette have waged a cold war (with brief periods of detente) against north Korea ever since. A peace treaty has never been signed to formally end the war, despite numerous entreaties by Pyongyang to do so.
The third key fact is that the current government in Seoul under the right-wing Lee Myung-bak is more closely aligned with US foreign policy on north Korea than two previous governments were. Lee wants to see north Korea’s collapse and its absorption by the south, while two other south Korean administrations had once pursued a policy of detente.
Lee, a former chairman and chief executive officer of Hyundai, came into office to save the country from what his supporters called “leftist, anti-U.S. and pro-north Korean elements. ” In the view of his supporters, this included former presidents Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Dae Jung, who pursued policies of coexistence with north Korea and worked toward an eventual confederation. Lee, by contrast, is committed to a policy of confrontation, heightened tensions and subordination of the north to the south. Where Roh and Kim dropped the designation of north Korea as the ROK’s archenemy, Lee restored it. This led US Korea expert Selig Harrison to declare that “south Korea is once again seeking the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.” 
Lee’s local reputation is one of a US puppet betraying Korean interests.
When tens of thousands of South Koreans spilled into central Seoul …(in 2008) … in the country’s largest antigovernment protest in 20 years, the police built a barricade with shipping containers. They coated them with oil and filled them with sandbags so protesters could not climb or topple them to march on President Lee Myung-bak’s office a couple of blocks away. Faced with the wall, people pasted identical leaflets on it, their message dramatically summarizing Mr. Lee’s image and alienation from many of his people: ‘This is a new border for our country. From here starts the U.S. state of South Korea.’ In the background, a female voice from a battery of loudspeakers led the crowd to chant: ‘Lee Myung-bak is Lee Wan-yong!’ Lee Wan-yong is an infamous name every South Korean child knows. A royal court minister at the turn of the last century who helped Imperial Japan annex Korea as a colony, he is Korea’s No. 1 national traitor. Lee has become ‘a Korean leader kowtowing to the Americans.’ 
Far from originating in north Korean aggression, the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula are the outcome of the Lee government’s policy of seeking the collapse of north Korea in order to absorb it into the south. To justify its policy of heightened confrontation, Seoul has turned reality on its head and presented all its provocations as self-defense against north Korean aggression. Accordingly, when the south Korean corvette, the Cheonan, sank in March in shallow waters near the north Korean coast after running aground and becoming entangled with an old mine, Lee quickly manoeuvred to blame the tragedy on a north Korean torpedo, even though his own military initially denied a torpedo was involved and said that north Korean submarines weren’t in the area. Despite this, Lee said his intuition told him a north Korean torpedo was behind the sinking. Unsurprisingly, weeks later, the official inquiry into the sinking bore out the president’s intuition. Lee seized on the opportunity to blame the tragedy on Pyongyang. This allowed him to call for an even more aggressive stance toward north Korea. Washington too exploited the tragedy and the pinning of it on Pyongyang to justify its continued military presence in Japan.
In November, when north Korea shelled a south Korean marine garrison on an island lying only eight miles off the north Korean coast, the south Korean president – as well as Washington and the western media – portrayed the shelling as an unprovoked act of north Korean aggression. But south Korean marines had fired live artillery into waters that, according to international customary law, belong to north Korea. Seoul, however, claims the waters as its own based on a sea border drawn unilaterally by the US military in 1953. Hardly unprovoked, the north Korean retaliation was triggered by the south Korean violation of north Korean territorial waters.
Moreover, the artillery exchange between the two Koreas coincided with south Korean manoeuvres involving 70,000 ROK troops backed by US Marines. Pyongyang saw the exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion, not an unreasonable inference given the number of troops involved and Lee’s overt hostility to the DPRK. In the context of a highly charged and ambiguous military situation (how could the DPRK generals distinguish a rehearsal for an invasion from preparation for a real one?) south Korea’s live artillery fire from an island only miles from the north Korean coast, and into waters Pyongyang claims as its own, was a highly aggressive act. On top of that, Pyongyang needed to react militarily to enforce its claim to sovereignty over the waters south Korea had violated by its live fire drill.
Just days ago Seoul repeated its November 23 provocation, firing live artillery into the same disputed waters from the same island. This time the stakes were raised. Washington arranged for US Marines to be present on the island  while Seoul warned that a north Korean response would be met by US and south Korean air strikes on north Korean targets.  Doubtlessly, Pyongyang regarded the potential killing of US marines in an artillery barrage as far more dangerous than killing south Korean troops. Realizing this was a confrontation it could not possibly win, it wisely refrained from retaliation.
Seoul’s alignment with Washington’s strategy of maintaining unceasing pressure on Pyongyang has been evident in other ways too. The Lee government has appointed a minister of unification. The minister, Hyon In Thaek, says it is necessary for “south Korea to carve out the future of the Korean Peninsula on its initiative” with “freedom, human rights, democracy and market economy as values.”  Imagine the uproar if Pyongyang said it was going to carve out the future of the Korean peninsula on its initiative. The Institute for Policy Studies’ John Feffer points out that the word “tongil” was emblazoned on the headbands worn by south Korean marines who carried out the latest artillery barrage into north Korean waters. Tongil is the Korean word for reunification. This led Feffer to conclude that Seoul is seeking reunification by force. 
To further ratchet up military pressure, Seoul has added another live fire drill to the dozens it has already conducted this year. And this one was carried out threateningly close to the north Korean border. According to the Associated Press:
South Korea’s army said (the) planned firing drills near the land border – the 48th of their kind this year – would be the biggest wintertime joint firing exercise the army and air force had staged. It would involve 800 troops, F-15K and KF-16 jet fighters, K-1 tanks, AH-1S attack helicopters and K-9 self-propelled guns. 
Revealingly, the Associated Press pointed out that South Korea had planned to conduct 47 drills of this type this year, but decided to conduct one more owing, as one south Korean officer put it, to “tension with the North.”  This only makes sense if Seoul’s goal is to heighten tension.
Finally, while the following doesn’t compare for provocation to adding another military exercise, it does underscore the reality that Seoul is bent on provoking its northern compatriots. According to the Guardian, “For the first time in seven years, South Korea has illuminated a 30m steel Christmas tree near the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas. The practice was stopped by the previous government as it was deemed a provocative act”. 
Pyongyang’s options are limited. While the United States and south Korea are unlikely to wage hot war (north Korea could inflict too much harm on south Korea), their cold war against the north will continue, no matter what concessions Pyongyang makes. The best north Korea can hope for is a relaxation of pressure under another ROK president, but never its end. While there may, at times, be periods of detente, the only peace Washington will ever settle for is a peace on its own terms – one in which north Korea turns away from socialism and uncompromising commitment to anti-imperialism.
In the meantime, north Korea bravely carries on, steadfast in the face of enormous imperialist pressure.
1. Donald Gregg, “Obama’s North Korea strategy?”www.politico.com, November 23, 2010. http://www.politico.com/arena/perm/Donald_Gregg_142C4C3C-A583-47DA-ABA9-F610E984C95B.html
2. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.
3. The New York Times, June 12, 2008.
4. Ashley Rowland, “U.S. will take part in South Korea live-fire drill”, Stars and Stripes, December 18, 2010.
5. Kwon Tae-ho, “S.Korea, U.S. and Japan convene tripartite talks”, The Hankyoreh, December 8, 2010.
6. KCNA Blasts Puppet Minister of Unification′s Outbursts, KCNA, December 15, 2010.
7. John Feffer, “South Korea: Seeking Reunification by Live Fire?”, Institute for Policy Studies, December 20, 2010. http://www.ips-dc.org/blog/is_south_korea_seeking_reunification_by_fire_-_live_fire_that_is
8. Hyun-Jin Kim, “SKorea to stage firing drills near land border”, The Associated Press, December 22, 2010.
10. Jonathan Watts, “North Korea steps back, but South Korea remains on high alert”, The Guardian (UK), December 21, 2010.