Letter from South Korea

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The recent artillery exchanges in the Korean peninsula come after a period of escalating tension in the region, reports Kim Ha-young.

At the end of November, North Korea fired artillery shells into Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, killing four people, including two innocent civilians. It is claimed that South Korea retaliated with its own artillery, resulting in major damage to North Korea. A North Korean broadcast reported, "The enemy fired artillery shells indiscriminately, even to residential areas."

North and South Korea have exchanged gunfire numerous times before, but this is the first time since the Korean War that they fired on land with a civilian population. News images of Yeonpyeong residents fleeing the island looked similar to old footage of refugees in the Korean War. This has shocked many in South Korea.

This incident is a result of the tension built up in the Korean peninsula over years. Barack Obama's administration is delaying the inevitable negotiation with North Korea, saying that it is practising "strategic patience" until North Korea changes strategy. According to recent documents released by Wikileaks, the Lee Myung Bak government of South Korea is "willing to let the inter-Korean relationship remain in a stalemate until the end of its term". It has been stepping up its pressure against the North with an expectation that North Korea will soon collapse.

However such pressure will not bring North Korea to its knees. Not long ago North Korea showed its modernised uranium enrichment facility to Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear expert and co-director of the Centre for International Security and Cooperation. At the time North Korea announced that it has 2,000 centrifuges.

North Korea began building the uranium enrichment facility when the Obama administration started economic sanctions against it for launching a satellite in early 2009. It is using nuclear facilities and missiles as leverage to bring the US to the negotiation table. The prediction of a third nuclear test is credible.

The attack on Yeonpyeong should be understood in this context - North Korea wants to demonstrate the necessity of a peace treaty to the US.

There is also a need for North Korea to close ranks, as it is in the middle of a succession of power from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. This third generation hereditary succession, at a time when the economy is barely surviving, may trigger serious political instability. A confrontation with external enemies could help to unite the nation.

The US and South Korean governments are escalating the danger by increasing military pressure after the Yeonpyeong island attack, which was the very result of such pressures. Day after day the right wing in South Korea demands strong retaliation, and the Lee Myung Bak government has announced a plan to significantly increase military forces in the West Sea region.

Immediately after the Yeonpyeong attack the US and South Korea held a joint military exercise in the West Sea during which the US dispatched the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. They had attempted to use this during the previous joint military drill in July 2010 but failed after strong protests from China. The US is clearly using North Korea's "provocations" to strengthen its hegemony in East Asia.

It is a well known secret that the series of measures taken by the US in the name of deterring threats from North Korea in East Asia have actually targeted China. The US is demanding that China put a leash on North Korea. China may hold North Korea down for a short period but it will never change North Korea's intention to have direct talks with the US by any means necessary. Rejecting the talks with North Korea and bringing in an aircraft carrier to the situation is like playing with fire near an explosive powder keg.

The South Korean left must see through the myth of what North Korea refers to as its "anti-imperial struggle". The ultimate goal of North Korea is to reconcile and negotiate with the US, but it is having the opposite effect. Therefore, the South Korean left must build a massive movement against imperialism from below as the alternative. This is the right way to carry out an anti-imperial struggle.

Kim Ha-young is co-editor of Marx21 (South Korea)