Easing the Korea Crisis

Posted Dec. 15, 2010, at 6:17 p.m.

There’s a simple explanation for the series of armed clashes between the two Koreas: a disputed boundary imposed without North Korean agreement following the 1953 armistice in the Korean War.

The reason for the tension in the Yellow Sea and a way to fix it appeared in an OpEd column in the Dec. 13 New York Times by Selig Harrison, a summer resident of Islesford and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, who has made many trips to North Korea.

He explains why North Korea shelled the tiny South Korean island of Yeonpyeong last month and why the United States rushed an aircraft-carrier group to the area. It has been the site of many earlier bloody sea battles.

A month after the 1953 armistice halted the Korean War, the United Nations forces drew a sea boundary without the approval of North Korea. In October 2007, in an effort “to avoid accidental clashes,” the North’s leader Kim Jong Il and the South’s President Roh Moo Hyun agreed to hold talks on a joint fishing area in the Yellow Sea. But in December, newly elected South Korean President Lee Myung Bak repudiated that declaration. North Korea responded with naval and artillery attacks that set off the present crisis.

Mr. Harrison proposes that the United States take the lead in easing the tension by redrawing the disputed sea boundary somewhat southward of the present line, which gave the best fishing grounds to the South Koreans.

He notes that President Barack Obama has the authority to redraw the line, since a 1950 U.N. Security Council resolution establishing the United Nations Command designated the United States as the executive agent. As he says, the Obama administration should consult with both Koreas on where to set the new boundary and get both to agree to abide by it.

He suggests that the United States warn North Korea that any future provocations, like the shelling of the island, will be met by “swift, appropriate retaliation” by the joint forces of the United States and South Korea.

The new boundary not only would ease the present crisis. It would also open the way for three-party negotiations by the United States, North Korea and China on a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Since South Korea did not sign the armistice, it could not sign a peace treaty. But North Korea has agreed that the South could be part of its proposed “trilateral peace regime,” in which the United States and both Koreas would develop arms-control and confidence-building arrangements on the peninsula.

The larger goal would be to eliminate nuclear weapons on the peninsula, establish normal diplomatic relations with the Pyongyang regime, and reduce the risk of U.S. involvement in another Korean war.

The unpredictable North Korean government could block such a plan, but it’s worth a try.

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