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Escalating Tension on the Korean Peninsula and the Role of the UN

By       Message Ronda Hauben     Permalink
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Ban Ki-moon's Response


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Just a few hours after the hostilities had erupted between the two Koreas on November 23, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a press statement that "the Secretary-General is deeply concerned by the escalation of tension on the Korean peninsula caused by today's artillery attack by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) on the Yeongpyeong Island. The attack was one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War." And that he "condemns the attack and calls for immediate restraint."(1) Also the statement said that Ban conveyed his "utmost concern" on the matter to the President of the Security Council.

Such a statement represents a problem for the UN. Article 100 of the UN Charter says: "In the performance of their duties the Secretary General and the staff shall not receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization. They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the organization."

The Secretary General is a former Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). If there is a problem between two nations, the obligation under the charter would be to inquire into the situation before making a statement or taking an action which favors one side in the dispute. This is not what the Secretary General did. Instead, he quickly made a public statement about the conflict, taking the side of South Korea.

In his hastily issued statement, Ban Ki-moon blamed North Korea for its actions and expressed sympathies to South Korea. Reports from North Korea, and also from South Korea, however, indicate that at 1:00 pm on November 23, North Korea complained to South Korea about the live firing by the South Korean military into disputed waters which both North Korea and South Korea claim. North Korea said that the firing of live ammunition came from Yeongpyeong Islet, where South Korea has a military base. When there was no response from South Korea to North Korea's efforts to communicate, North Korea said it had no choice but to return the fire, acting in self defense.

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Much of the media, however, does not include North Korea's side of the story in its coverage of Korean news. For example, in this situation, numerous accounts of how North Korea fired at the Yeonpyeong Islet of South Korea appeared in the media, presenting this as but another example of North Korea's so called "bellicose' and "irrational' nature.

It is rare that any of the mainstream media accounts in the US document the hostile environment of multiple war exercises and rehearsals for an invasion carried out by the South Korean and US military threatening North Korean security. It is rare that any of the mainstream news media, particularly in the US, give information about the background of the tension in this area.

Armistice Did Not Solve Contested Waters of the West Sea

On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed by the DPRK (North Korea), the Unified Command headed by the US, and the Chinese Peoples Volunteers, to end the hostilities of the Korean war. This was not, however, a peace treaty ending the war, nor did the armistice agreement settle disputed political claims like the claims about West Sea boundaries. Instead, the armistice included a provision that in three months a political conference should be held of higher level representatives of the parties to formulate the political agreements to conclude a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War.(2)

One month after the armistice agreement, on August 30, 1953, the head of the Unified Command, the American commander, General Mark W Clark, unilaterally declared a West Sea boundary called the Northern Limit Line (NLL). He claimed he did this, "in order to prevent accidental clashes at sea between the two Koreas." The NLL is not part of the armistice agreement. It has never been accepted by the North Korea, and left in dispute for more than 50 years, the boundaries of the Korean West Sea off the coast of the North Korea. The NLL hugs the coast line of North Korea rather than continuing westerly the 38th parallel which is the land demarcation.

The political conference recommended in the armistice agreement to formulate a peace treaty, was never held. Instead the NLL has been a continuing source of tension. Recognizing the danger to peace and stability represented by this contested area, North Korea and South Korea have included provisions for the peaceful use of this area in several agreements between the two Koreas. These include the 1991 North-South Joint Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Cooperation and Exchange, and the agreements reached at the June 2000, and the October 2007 joint presidential summits. In the 1991 North-South Joint Agreement, procedures were designed so that no provocative action would be carried out by either party in the disputed areas.

For example, in the 1991 agreement, Chapter 3 Article 11 of the appendix on non-aggression stipulates that the maritime non-aggression zone will be controlled by both sides until the maritime non-aggression boundary line is settled. (3) In the 2007 agreement, North and South Korea agreed to "designate a joint fishing area" in the West Sea to avoid accidental clashes and ultimately to work to make this joint fishing area into a "peace area." (4)

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Firing into Contested Waters as a Provocation

North Korea says that South Korea's live firings into the disputed waters, which are close to North Korean land, is a serious provocation. It charges that if it does not respond to the actions of South Korea in this contested area, then South Korea and the US will take it as a tacit recognition that the NLL is accepted as the maritime boundary. Also it believes that such military drills can be used to mask an actual invasion.

Occasionally a press account refers to the fact that there continues to be a state of war between North Korea and South Korea. Rare it is, however, that there is any acknowledgement in the mainstream media or at the UN Security Council that it is a problem that this state of war continues from the era of the 1950s until today, almost 60 years later. With only an armistice agreement signed in 1953, but no peace treaty ending the Korean War, the disputed issues not resolved by the armistice continue as unsettled issues that are potential triggers for a resumption of military hostilities by either side.

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Ronda Hauben covers the United Nations and UN related issues in her blog at, "Netizen Journalism and the New News". As a co-author with Michael Hauben of the book "Netizens: On the History and Impact of the Usenet and the (more...)

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