The sinking in March of a South Korean warship, with the loss of 46 lives, caused a diplomatic storm and ranked up tensions in one of the world’s major hotspots.
South Korea blamed the sinking of its corvette, the Cheonan, near a disputed sea border with the North, on a torpedo. It presented forensic evidence, including part of a torpedo propeller with what investigators believe is a North Korean serial number. North Korea called the conclusion a “fabrication” and threatened to respond to sanctions with “strong measures, including a full-scale war”.
North and South Korea remain technically at war, despite the armistice of 1953 which ended a three-year conflict that cost more than two million lives. The Korean War was essentially an East-West confrontation in which the Soviet Union and the United States fought each other in another country by proxy, suffering no collateral damage in their own territories. A heavily guarded demilitarised zone on the 38th parallel continues to divide the Korean peninsula today.
Democratic South Korea remains a firm US ally. North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), remains a secretive totalitarian state, largely barred to foreigners, deeply paranoid about the West and ruled by the Kim dynasty. It draws substantial economic support from China and current supreme ruler Kim Jong-il (commonly known as The Dear Leader) does little to disprove his reputation as one of the world’s flakier despots.
Both North and South Korea signed the June 15th North- South Joint Declaration in 2000, promising to seek out a peaceful reunification. In 2007, the leaders of North and South Korea pledged to hold summit talks to officially declare the war over and reaffirmed the principle of mutual non-aggression. The March incident has put the peace process on hold.
South Korea is seeking UN sanctions against the North, while assuring its allies it doesn’t want war. Provoking its unpredictable northern foe could have dire consequences, given that North Korea maintains the world’s fifthlargest standing army and has been developing nuclear weapons. Diplomatic and economic pressure are likely to increase, in the hope of forcing Pyongyang to change its ways. For now, that hope looks small.