The United States has 50,000 troops stationed in South Korea and Washington has decribed the North Korean attack as a violation of the armistice agreement. So is the Korean peninsula on the brink of war?
Presenter: Sen Lam
Christopher Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian & Pacific Affairs and Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver; US envoy to South Korea, Stephen Bosworth
STEPHEN BOSWORTH: I want to refer you to the statement that was issued by the White House earlier today on the incident that occurred in the West Sea involving the exchange of artillery fire, initiated by the North Koreans. The US strongly condemns this aggression on the part of North Korea and we stand firmly with our allies.
LAM: The US envoy to South Korea, Stephen Bosworth. So is the Korean Peninsula on the brink of war?
Christopher Hill is a former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He headed the US delegation in the 6 nation talks on the North Korean nuclear issue from 2005 until last year. Ambassador Hill joins us now on the line from the United States. Christopher Hill, welcome to Radio Australia.
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you very much.
LAM: Ambassador Hill, for those of us who follow Korea, it would seem that this is part of the ebb and flow of the Korea story. But is it business as usual or are we seeing something more sinister unfolding here?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Oh, I think this is a very serious matter. There have been various incidents of this nature that is in this maritime border on the West side of the Korean Peninsula but this is an incident in which the North Koreans have shelled a territorial part of South Korea. I think it is a very serious matter and I think of great concern is the fact that North Korea's is in the middle of an internal succession. They clearly are trying to hand off from Kim Jong-il who's been Kim Jong-very ill and now to his son who's a total unknown in North Korea. And I think it is increasingly clear that the North Korean military just does what it does and doesn't seem to concern itself with the consequences.
LAM: The current administration of South Korean President, Lee Myung-Bak, of course, is well known for its lack of patience for North Korea, and indeed President Lee has warned that Seoul will retaliate with great force if pushed. Is there a danger that the situation might escalate inadvertently into something more serious?
CHNRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I think anytime you have these kinds of incidents you have to worry about escalation, including unintended escalation. But I would like to take issue with the notion that President Lee Myung-Bak is not a careful leader or somehow is inclined to a more belligerent approach. I think he has been very careful. I think he has really attempted to work things through with the North Koreans. The problem is they have not been prepared to do that and I think their problem has to do with the fact that they have a succession crisis that is they have an internal problem that they need to sort out.
LAM: So is this current situation and indeed the incident yesterday, is that a reflection of uncertainty and instability, vis a vis the succession issue and the North Korean military?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: I think it very much reflects their internal uncertainty, their internal problems. I think the question of who runs the North Korean military is very much open. Normally, a military would have some civilian direction. I am not really seeing that. What I am seeing is a North Korean military that feels that it can act with impunity. So I think what will be very important in the hours and days ahead is first of all for the US to work very closely with the South Koreans and that clearly is underway as President Obama suggested. He has already been in touch with President Lee Myung-Bak, But I think secondly, at some point the action needs to shift to Beijing. We already see that Ambassador Bosworth is in Beijing and I think it's time that the Chinese really accepted some ownership of this problem and did something about it.
LAM: Well, you say that, and indeed we've been saying it for the last few years, and Beijing of course, is a member of the six nation talks. Beijing doesn't seem to be budging. What will it take though to make Beijing sit up and take note?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I think Beijing does not want to see these kinds of incidents. I don't think there is any sort of conspiracy notion in Beijing that somehow these incidents are desirable. I think just the repetition of these sorts of things will get the Chinese leadership to stand up and take note. I mean China's future lies with a good relationship with the United States, with other countries that China tends to have very productive economic relationships with. And I think North Korea in many respects is a relic of China's past. And I think the problem in China, of course, is the fact that the Chinese are so divided on this issue. The military feels much more sympathetic to the North Koreans than the civilians do. The party people feel much more sympathetic towards North Korea than the government does. So I think China has its own internal disputes about this, with the result that they have been kind of stalemated. Well, I think it's time to break through that and understand where China's interests really lie.
LAM: And also from where you sit .. you've been involved in this issue for a long time now. From where you sit, do you think China still has much influence, much leeway with Pyongyang?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: I do, if you go down to Dandong, the Chinese city on the border of North Korea, which, by the way, compared to what looks across the river, it looks like Las Vegas or something, but you will see in that area many Chinese goods going into North Korea. You will see that there is a healthy amount of economic intercourse going on there and so I think the Chinese need to understand they cannot have it both ways, that this is an issue of great importance to the United States and to its partners in the region. It is an issue of great importance frankly to the entire civilised world and the Chinese really need to understand that if they want to a great relationship with us, they need to start working this issue a little harder.