Nuclear war called off in Korea – time to relax?

by | May 17, 2013

Something quite significant happened this week– though you may have missed it.

It seems the US military doesn’t think there will be nuclear war with North Korea.

A few weeks ago, you could have been forgiven for thinking we were on the brink of something similar to the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962. Pyongyang was threatening a nuclear strike on America and the US – in an unusual move – publicly announced nuclear-capable stealth bombers were taking part in joint military exercises with South Korea.

But then this Monday, unreported by most media, the US Army commander in the Pacific, Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, said he thought ‘the current cycle of provocation (by the North) has come to its end point’.

Things have probably quietened down because the joint exercises are over and the leadership in the North feel they’ve achieved whatever it is they set out to do.

For instance, also this week, the North Korean Defence Minister was replaced . Although we don’t know for sure why he was given the push, there‘s speculation it’s part of efforts by the isolated communist state’s young leader, Kim Jong-Un, to consolidate his hold on power.  Kim is the grandson of the North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung; but at only 30 he’d had very little time to build a power base of his own when he inherited the leadership on the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong Il, 18 months ago. Indeed, many North Korea watchers attribute the recent nuclear sabre-rattling to Kim’s attempt to build support inside the corridors of power in Pyongyang by appearing strong and martial.

Whatever the reason, the North has also removed missiles it had deployed on its east coast near the border with the South.

So we can breathe a sigh of relief then?

Well, I’m afraid to say it’s not yet time to take your eyes off flashpoints in east Asia, because tensions in the seas around China are still bubbling up.

Last week,  Japan protested at comments in the official Chinese press which appeared to question Japan’s territorial claim to Okinawa. You may wonder why Okinawa all of a sudden, so a little history is required.

Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu island chain which in previous centuries was a tributary of China (although Okinawa itself has been controlled by the Japanese since the 17th Century). This is the historical basis of Beijing’s overtly stated claim to other islands in the chain called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. These are controlled by Japan, but have been at the centre of growing tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over the past year as Chinese and Japanese ships and aircraft regularly play cat and mouse in the waters and airspace around the tiny islands which are thought to sit atop oil and gas deposits.

Then, this week, a row between the Philippines and Taiwan escalated.  Taiwan said Manila’s apology for the death of Taiwanese fisherman, shot by the Philippines coastguard in seas claimed by both, was not sincere. Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China (it is governed by the Chinese Nationalist Party which lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949) and makes the same territorial claims as Beijing, which include waters and islands the Philippines also regards as its.  After the apology, the Taiwanese started naval exercises near the Philippines and in the past day there have been attacks on Filipinos who live in Taiwan.  Beijing has also weighed into the dispute on Taiwan’s side – Beijing regards Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China so it sees the Taiwanese as compatriots.

This follows a year in which tension between Beijing and Manila has grown steadily. Last year, the Philippines, apparently encouraged by US President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ which has involved reinforcing American military forces in the Pacific and South East Asia, challenged Chinese claims to an area called Scarborough Shoal when its navy apprehended  Chinese trawlers there. It seems Manila felt emboldened to act because it thought the US would support it. In the event, Chinese maritime surveillance ships arrived and stopped the Filipino navy arresting the fishermen and since then the Chinese have been in effective control of the area.

So while tensions are subsiding in Korea, they are rising in the East and South China Seas and the potential for clashes between the forces of the various countries remains high.

None of the governments involved want war, but there’s no guarantee the sailors or pilots involved won’t miscalculate and cause more serious incidents which will be difficult to control given nationalist passions are running high on all sides.


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    Alistair Burnett is Director of News for Sightsavers, the NGO that works around the world to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote equality for people with visual impairments and other disabilities. Before that he spent 26 years with BBC News where he was the Editor of 'The World Tonight' on Radio 4 for ten years and before that Editor of 'Newshour' on BBC World Service. Alistair has a particular interest in international relations and the shifting power relations in the world challenging the traditional US and European dominance of global affairs.

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