South Korea's Lee Hangs Tough

South Korea is not satisfied with having won last week's standoff with the north. Is a more forward strategy evolving?

Amiel Ungar, | updated: 18:11

Lee with President Obama
Lee with President Obama


It currently appears that the show of force displayed by South Korea last week when it went ahead with its military drills despite the warning by North Korea of retaliation was more than a onetime response to display toughness but has flowered into a policy. South Korea is not content with merely causing Pyongyang to blink in last week's confrontation.

Lee's Tough Words

In an address to the nation, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak called for national unity in face of what can now be considered a continued state of crisis. Lee called upon his countrymen to "to stand together, united as one…There can be no difference between you and me when it comes to national security, because our lives and the survival of the nation depend on it," Lee said Monday. The South Korean president added. "Fear of war is never helpful in preventing war." Lee threatened the North that if it attacked South Korean territory it would face a relentless response upon its own territory.

Japanese Support

In its confrontation with the North South Korea continues to receive support from Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan interviewed in the South Korean JoongAng Daily was asked about Lee's warning to the North:

The South Korean government has said that it will strike North Korea if the South is attacked again. Do you agree with this?

I think the South Korean government will take the proper action based on the situation. Japan will also keep an eye on [North Korea], as we also have a deep interest in peace and security, not only on the Korean Peninsula but in the Northeast Asian region.

The Japanese prime minister was also transparent about the diplomatic alignments on the issue: "Japan is closely cooperating with South Korea and the United States and asking Russia and China to exert influence over North Korea." This was a subtle way of establishing a demarcation between those who cooperate and those who need to be asked. Kan's jab at China was amplified in the Asahi Shimbun's December 23, editorial: "It is hard for Japan to understand why China is so eagerly defending North Korea."

 Despite the solo diplomacy of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to United Nations under Bill Clinton, the Obama Administration has also backed South Korea and disavowed any responsibility for Richardson. South Korea is not seeking to escalate matters with China and will hold defense talks with Beijing sometime in February. Seoul also chose to liquidate a diplomatic incident involving Chinese fishing boats accused of illegally fishing in South Korean waters by releasing the captured fishing boat and its crew.

 China in the Doghouse

This did not prevent continued criticism of China by both officialdom and in the South Korean press, given South Korean resentment over China's coddling of the North. The Chosun Ilbo reported for example Korean frustration over China's insistence on deleting anything that could be considered derogatory to the north.When a South Korean government official asked China to join efforts to denounce the North's attack on the South Korean vessel Cheonan, Wu Dawei [the Chinese special representative on the Korean Peninsula Affairs] said, "South Korea will realize later that China's call for patience is right from a broadminded point of view."  South Korean diplomats claim to be stymied in their communications with the Chinese "We're often frustrated because Chinese diplomats deliver moral lectures when they're supposed to talk about pending issues."

Making North Korea Pay

However, even if it enjoys diplomatic support, what does South Korea hope to gain by the continuation of the crisis atmosphere? A possible answer appeared in a long analysis by Michael J Greene, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.that ran in the South Korean JoonAng Daily (this paper by the way is sold together with the international Herald Tribune making it popular with the foreign and diplomatic community).

In this analysis Greene argued that it was necessary to finally correct a policy that had allowed North Korea to advance towards its nuclear objectives by using escalation. When this escalation met with sanctions and military deployments, North Korea dangled the prospects of returning to negotiations and the firmness evaporated. This handed the initiative back to North Korea. Instead Greene advocates a policy that will "ensure that we have our own strategic campaign plan for degrading North Korean capabilities and then applying it opportunistically ourselves when crises occur. " Greene then proceeded to outline a series of retaliatory measures that would"impose consequences on the North for its actions."

Perhaps it is more diplomatically opportune to ascribe a policy to an American scholar. This allows the South Korean government room to retreat should this policy backfire.