Using the Context to Decode the Artillery Clash in Korea

Reading an obituary of Chalmers Johnson – the American East Asia expert who moved from being a Cold War warrior to a trenchant critic of US imperialism – I was taken with his stress on the importance of context. Talking about the need to strip away the lies of government he wrote ‘The concept ‘blowback’ does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in foreign countries. It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. This means that when the retaliation comes—as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001—the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback’.

As with 9/11 so with the latest incident on the Korean peninsula…

If we were to believe the official line we would accept William Hague’s description of an ‘unprovoked attack’, a ‘brazen’ attack’ (Wall St Journal) on a ‘populated island’ (Guardian). If we understood the context we would be suspicious of this narrative and look closer. We would find that this is not just a ordinary fishing island. According to the New York Times, ‘Yeonpyeong Island sits just two miles from the Northern Limit Line, the disputed sea border which the North does not recognize, and only eight miles from the North Korean coast. The island houses a garrison of about 1,000 South Korean marines, and the navy has deployed its newest class of “patrol killer” guided-missile ships in the Western Sea, as the Yellow Sea is also known.’ The North Korea shelling, which targeted the marine base, followed a live firing exercise by South Korea. The North claims that the South was firing shells into its territory, the South denies that.

However, the actual events of this specific exercise are less important than a much larger one taking place at the same time.  This is the Hoguk Exercise which is scheduled for 22 to 30 November and which ‘involves 70,000 South Korean military troops, 50 warships, 90 helicopters and 500 planes. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) of U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Seventh Air Force will also participate in the exercise.’(Hankyoreh, Seoul)   The 31st MEU is based in Okinawa (over the objections of the locals and, until recently, the Japanese government’) and is trained for a number of roles. One of them is to launch a commando raid during an invasion of North Korea. An article published by a US think tank puts it delicately:  As a collapse of North Korea — rather than a North Korean invasion of South Korea — has become a more likely scenario, the 31st MEU can search and seize the North Korean nuclear arsenal, and prevent proliferation of those weapons.’ (PacNet, Honolulu)

The Hoguk Exercise, in turn, is just one of a series of joint US-South Korean military exercises, which have been going on for decades but which have increased in tempo, and aggressiveness, since the sinking of the Cheonan.

These exercises, and the Cheonan incident – or rather the use which has been made of it – can only be understood within the context of Korean politics and US global strategy.  South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (in contrast to his two immediate predecessors) has a confrontational policy aimed at precipitating a collapse of North Korea – and really giving those guys in the 31st MEU something to get their teeth into.  The United States, fearful of rising China and bereft of much idea what to do about it, seems happy to tag along.

The geopolitical context is tortuous, and often hidden from view by politicians and press, but it is the key to understand what is going on.  The situation in Northeast Asia is becoming increasingly tense and dangerous. If real fighting breaks out, rather than the skirmishes of the past, then we might well end up with another war between the United States and China, with incalculable, but surely disastrous, consequences.


Dr. Tim Beal is the author of North Korea: The Struggle Against American Power. London and Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2005. He is currently working on another volume for Pluto provisionally titled The Cheonan Incident: On the brink of war in East Asia. He has just returned from Northeast Asia, spending one week in Beijing, four weeks in Seoul, and a week in Pyongyang.

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