The crisis in the Yellow Sea, which was set off by the North Korean shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island last month, is probably mystifying to many Americans. Why did the North fire a deadly artillery barrage at a sparsely inhabited, relatively insignificant island? Why has the United States dispatched an entire aircraft-carrier group to the scene?
But things make more sense if you look at recent events as merely the latest in a decades-long series of naval clashes between the two Koreas resulting from a disputed sea boundary that was hastily imposed by the United Nations forces — without North Korean agreement — after the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War. Several times the dispute has flared into bloody naval battles, most notably in 1999, when at least 17 North Korean sailors died, and in 2002, when four South Koreans and at least 30 North Koreans were killed.
In October 2007 it seemed like the cycle might be broken: Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, and President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea pledged to hold talks on a joint fishing area in the Yellow Sea “to avoid accidental clashes.” But that December, the hard-liner Lee Myung-bak was elected president of South Korea; he promptly disowned the accord, which kicked off the most recent chapter in the dispute.
North Korea responded. It quickly built up its shore artillery near the disputed waters, accused Seoul of violating its territory, and in 2008 launched short-range missiles into the contested waters. This March, a South Korean Navy ship, the Cheonan, was sunk by what a South Korean inquiry concluded was a North Korean torpedo attack. And on Nov. 9, two weeks before the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island began, a North Korean naval patrol crossed the disputed line and exchanged fire with South Korean vessels.
Can anything be done to put an end to the simmering conflict in the Yellow Sea? Yes, and the solution could be quite straightforward: the United States should redraw the disputed sea boundary, called the Northern Limit Line, moving it slightly to the south.
The Northern Limit Line was so named because it was meant to impose a limit on any potential South Korean encroachment into North Korea. The South’s president, Syngman Rhee, still dreamed of winning the war — he refused to sign the armistice — and repeatedly vowed to overthrow the Pyongyang regime.
Rhee’s hopes were never realized, but one thing the Northern Limit Line did was to give the best fishing grounds in the area to South Korea. It’s no coincidence that many of the clashes there have occurred during the summer crab-fishing season. If the boundary were refashioned in a more equitable way, tensions would undoubtedly ease.
And, fortunately, President Obama has the authority to redraw the line. On July 7, 1950, a United Nations Security Council resolution established the United Nations Command for Korea and designated the United States as the executive agent, with authority to name its commander. That original command is still with us today in vestigial form. It is commanded by Gen. Walter Sharp, who is thus the current successor to Gen. Mark Clark, who signed the 1953 armistice.
The Obama administration would do well to consult with both Seoul and Pyongyang on where to best set the new boundary, get an agreement from both governments to abide by it, and put it on the map. South Korea should not be given a veto over the redrawing. And North Korea should be warned that any future provocations on its part like the shelling of Yeonpyeong will result in swift, appropriate retaliation by the joint forces of the United States and South Korea.
Ideally, redrawing the line would not only ease the present crisis, but also set the stage for negotiations among the United States, North Korea and China on a peace treaty that would replace the temporary armistice and formally end the Korean War. (Since South Korea did not sign the armistice, it cannot sign a peace treaty, but North Korea has agreed that Seoul could be part of a future trilateral peacekeeping body.)
One possible mechanism to replace the armistice is the “trilateral peace regime” for the peninsula that has been proposed by North Korea’s principal military spokesman, Gen. Ri Chan-bok. Under the plan, the armed forces of the United States, North Korea and South Korea would set up a “mutual security assurance commission.” Its role would be to prevent incidents in the demilitarized zone that could threaten the peace and to develop arms-control and confidence-building arrangements on the peninsula. General Ri has said explicitly that the North would not object to the presence of American forces on the peninsula if the armistice and the United Nations Command were replaced.
Defusing tensions in the Yellow Sea and keeping the peace at the demilitarized zone are the prerequisites for pursuing the larger goals that should govern United States policy in Korea: eliminating nuclear weapons on the peninsula and establishing normal diplomatic relations with the Pyongyang regime, all in the aim of reducing the risk of American involvement in another Korean War.
By Selig S. Harrison, the author of Korean Endgame and the director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy.