On Friday, the official news agency of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) declared that the impending war games between South Korea and the United States were pushing the Korean Peninsula ‘to the brink of war.’ The news agency, KCNA, said that the war exercises were specifically targeting North Korea. At the same time ‘artillery like’ sounds were heard near the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which lies just south of the contentious maritime border dividing the two Korean states. On Tuesday, Yeonpyeong was the site of the most serious armed violence to have flared up between the two Koreas since the 1953 armistice ended the Korean War.
The war games, which have been planned for months, entail the deployment of the George Washington carrier battle group to the Yellow Sea. The games are scheduled to begin on Sunday and will last four days. In addition, the South Korean government has strengthened the garrison on Yeonpyeong and has relaxed their Rules of Engagement. Whereas before, the RoEs were restrictive, and designed to prevent incidents escalating, South Korean troops ill have greater discretion to respond to provocations with armed force.
The openSecurity verdict: For many outside observers, the statement that the Korean peninsula is on the brink of war has been an almost constant refrain for over a decade. However, several variables in the security equation have changed, leading to a very real risk of conflict escalating. To begin with, North Korea’s statement comes after the most severe armed violence between the South and the North since the Korean War, and this itself comes after a chain of incidents, including the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, unprecedented in recent times.
The South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, is in no mood to compromise and the hard line stance of his administration has seen South Korean aid to its northern neighbour shrink to a trickle. According to South Korea, this is a response to the North’s stubborn refusal to renounce its nuclear ambitions and eliminate its ballistic missile stockpile. Relaxing the rules of engagement of South Korean troops is an alarming indication that the South intends to fight back if provoked.
From the North Korean side, the situation is less clear, perhaps alarmingly so. One interpretation is that the recent apparent belligerence of the DPRK is linked to Kim Jong-il’s attempts to cement the succession of his son, Kim Jong-un, to the leadership. By achieving a military ‘success’, however narrowly defined, the younger Kim’s future will be far more secure.
Another interpretation, possibly the more pessimistic, is that the ailing Kim Jong-il is losing control of his military, which is acting under their own orders. Regardless of which interpretation is correct, the situation on the peninsula is arguably at its most volatile since the mid-1990s when US President Bill Clinton actively planned a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Pyongyang. It is to be hoped that cooler heads, possibly aided by Chinese intervention, will prevail.
Israeli forces demolish mosque in the occupied West Bank
On Thursday, Palestinian sources alleged that Israeli troops had destroyed a mosque and ten other structures in the occupied West Bank. The IDF have responded by saying that they have knocked down what they refer to as eight ‘temporary structures’ erected within a military firing zone. Most of the demolitions occurred in the village of Khirbet Yarza. Residents have stated that the mosque itself was a very old building, but it had an extension built last year.
Khirbet Yarza in the north Jordan valley falls within a C – level area, where Israeli military control is absolute. Buildings are often built without planning permission by Palestinians because when planning permission is sought it is invariably denied. According to the local NGO Bimkom, 95% of planning applications are rejected annually. The other location where the demolitions took place is the town of Yatta. The IDF destroyed a house which was home to 18 people.
Nouri al-Maliki asked to form next Iraqi government
An end to a period of political brokering that garnered Iraq the dubious distinction of being the country where the formation of a government took the longest period of time to form, incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been invited by the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to form a government. This has come after intense power-sharing negotiations between the different factions competing for influence. The decision to appoint al-Maliki to the premiership was due last Sunday, following the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, but was reportedly put off to allow Maliki time to negotiate cabinet appointments.
The final arrangement has al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, as Prime Minister serving under Talabani, a Kurd. The price for this has been the appointment of Osama al-Nujaifi, a member of the Sunni al-Iraqiya bloc, as Speaker of Parliament and Iyad Allwai, head of Iraqiya, as head of a new security organ. Allawi, who narrowly missed an absolute majority in the parliamentary elections held in March, had previously condemned his rivals as pawns of Iran.