crosscurrents in Korean crisis, by Ameen Izzadeen

War clouds are gathering over the Korean peninsula, as South Korea blames North Korea for the March 26 sinking of one of its warships. Both countries have put their militaries on high alert. Adding fuel to the crisis is the United States. It is backing the tough measures South Korea is taking against its communist neighbour, rather than urging constraint and measures aimed at bringing peace between the two countries.

By contrast, China, North Korea's ally and biggest trading partner, is maintaining a stoic silence. It did not condemn North Korea. Neither did it endorse South Korea's version of what happened. Japan, the other major player in the region's politics, is watching the developments with great concern and taking measures to beef up its security.

The March 26 incident was, perhaps, South Korea's 9/11. The comparison was not because 46 sailors died in the sinking of the warship, a shocking death toll from a South Korean perspective, but because the two incidents are shrouded in mystery. There are several unanswered questions.

The best way to answer these questions is to ask a question as to who will benefit from the incident. Just as the 9/11 helped the US to move into Iraq and establish a permanent presence in the Middle East, the sinking of Cheonan, the South Korean warship, is probably linked to a grand big-power design, for the history of international politics is full of controlled incidents that have led to devastating wars. Didn't the faked Gulf of Tonkin attack lead to the United States' full-scale entry into the Vietnam War in 1964?

The Korean peninsula is of strategic importance to major powers. China considers the region as its backyard while Japan is wary about China's growing military power. The United States, the stranger in the region, has been maintaining a strong military presence in Japan since the end of World War II and in South Korea following the outbreak of the Korean War. In short, all major powers are jostling for strategic advantage in the region.

The sinking of the Cheonan came at a time when Japan' socialist Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was under pressure to close down the US base in Okinawa. He made a campaign promise to dismantle the base. But on Monday, citing the heightening tension in the Korean peninsula, he reneged on his promise and agreed to keep the base. But as a compromise, he said a small US marine facility in the island would be shifted to the less populated northern part of Okinawa.

"I decided that it is of utmost importance that we place the Japan-US relationship on a solid foundation of mutual trust, considering the current situation in the Korean peninsula and in Asia," Hatoyama told reporters on Monday.

The people who voted his party to power in September last year, especially the people of Okinawa, were furious.

But Hatoyama, who faces a major electoral test in July, received kudos from Washington.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who was visiting the region early this week commended Hatoyama for making the difficult, but nevertheless correct, decision to relocate the US facility inside Okinawa.

Japan, which is prohibited by its constitution to launch or take part in wars, depends on the US to defend it from outside threats. Hatoyama's supporters say safeguarding Japan's national security at a time of crisis is much more important than the concerns of the people of Okinawa.

The airbase also serves US interests. The Okinawa base, located south of mainland Japan, overlooks the Korean peninsula in the northwest, China in the west and the Taiwan Strait in the southwest. The US is bound by a defence agreement to protect Taiwan if Beijing uses military means to reunite the breakaway region with mainland China. Obviously, China is not comfortable with the presence of 50,000 US troops in Okinawa, from where the US could spy on Chinese military moves.

With tension rising in the Korean peninsula, the US has increased its military activities in the region. It plans to conduct a series of joint military exercises with South Korea in the coming days.

Obviously, the US has stood to benefit from the Cheonan sinking, whether North Korea did it or any other power.

When the blast split the ship, suspicion fell on North Korea. Experts from South Korea, the United States, Australia and Sweden conducted a probe and claimed they had found irrefutable evidence that the warship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. Seoul displayed fragments of a torpedo that bore North Korean markings.

Pyongyang denied the South Korean claim and dismissed the probe as lopsided. It challenged South Korea to allow North Korean experts to go through whatever evidence was available — a request South Korea turned down.

Perhaps Seoul was angry. But it should not have turned down North Korea's request for a joint probe. Seoul's refusal to accommodate Pyongyang's proposal gives rise to more suspicion. Could it be the work of a third country that had surreptitiously obtained a North Korean torpedo for the attack? Perhaps, this was why Russia yesterday said it would not blame North Korea unless it had 100 percent proof.

But South Korea's rightwing President Lee Myung-bak was not interested. Apart from referring the matter to the UN Security Council for tough sanctions, he ended the South's trade links with the North and banned North Korean vessels from entering the South's territorial waters. These punitive measures have angered the North, which has threatened equally tough measures that could harm South's economic interests. More than 100 South Korean companies have set up factories in the North to exploit cheap labour there.

The two countries also have a longstanding dispute over their maritime boundary. The disputed waters have seen recurrent skirmishes between the two navies. In November, a North Korean patrol craft was badly damaged by South Korean naval fire. In a previous clash in 2002, some 17 North Korean sailors and four South Koreans died.

Given these dangers, prudence demands that the two countries exercise restraint and take measures to minimize confrontation. But given the rightwing nature of the South Korean government, it is unlikely that Seoul will focus on pacific measures. President Lee has, instead, resorted to tough talk. "If our territorial waters, airspace or territory are militarily violated, we will immediately exercise our right of self defence," he vowed.

Such a hawkish stand by the leader of the party — the Grand National Party — that ruled South Korea under military dictatorship during much of the Cold War period comes as no surprise. Besides, Lee is also a strong opponent of former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy aimed at North-South unification.

Washington, meanwhile, has intensified diplomatic measures to rope in Chinese support for a UN resolution against North Korea. It is unlikely that China will back tough resolution against North Korea, though Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will visit Seoul today for crisis talks. It was only a few weeks ago that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited China and signed a series of investment promoting agreements. China has already undertaken a US$ 10 billion infrastructure development project in North Korea. Surely China will not want to see its staunchest political ally suffer. Now that South Korea has ended trade ties with the North, Pyongyang has only China for succour.

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