South Korean and U.S. military forces began joint aerial drills following North Korea’s firing of a ballistic missile. North Korea has launched a string of weapons tests in the last few months, heightening tensions in Northeast Asia. The military drills have begun amid calls from a special U.S. envoy to rejoin denuclearization talks.
The aerial exercises are a continuation of the Vigilant Ace drills that South Korea and the U.S. began in 2017. Vigilant Ace was scaled back to allow the U.S. and North Korea to engage in productive negotiations. Reuters reported that the current drills will last five days, and around 100 aircraft have been dispatched from each side.
North Korea’s missile launch violated several U.N. Security Council resolutions. However, Pyongyang has justified its actions by claiming the test was in “self-defense.” In August, North Korea reportedly severed communication with South Korea following annual military drills between the allies. Kim Yo-Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-Un, denounced the joint military drills, calling them “perfidious behaviour.” North Korea maintains the position that it needs an extensive weapons armoury, which includes nuclear warheads, to ward off attacks from South Korea and the U.S.
The tension between North and South Korea dates back to the Korean War (1950 – 1953). Following a brutal three-year war, the North, backed by China, and the South, backed by the U.S., signed an armistice agreement. The agreement called for a ceasefire and the “complete cessation of all hostilities in Korea by all armed forces.”
While the agreement ended the military conflict, neither the North nor the South could agree on the future of Korea. Both sides wanted to see Korea united under their respective governments and would not compromise on their position. As a result, the Korean War has never technically ended. The armistice ended the fighting, but because the conflict was never formally resolved, the relationship between North and South Korea remains strained.
In 2006, North Korea successfully tested its first nuclear weapon, causing international concern. Several U.S. presidents have attempted to negotiate denuclearization with North Koreans, however, these discussions have had minimal results and North Korea has continued to expand its military capabilities. North Korea continues to justify its possession of nuclear weapons as its only defence against aggression from the U.S. and South Korea. Some political scientists believe that if North and South Korea can restart discussions to finally end the Korean War, it will help ease tensions in the region.
The international community needs to come together to facilitate these talks between the two Koreas. In particular, involvement from the U.S. and China is crucial in making these negotiations successful. China is North Korea’s closest ally, and without the support of China in the agreements, the results will be limited. In the past, China hasn’t taken a firm position on sanctions and resolutions against North Korea. This weakened the ability of the international community to negotiate as it made these actions ineffective.
North Korea’s continuous testing of newly developed weapons has put South Korea in a precarious situation. Currently, the country relies on U.S. security guarantees for protection against North Korean aggression. However, it may only be a matter of time before South Korea decides U.S. military capabilities aren’t enough to protect it and begins developing its own nuclear weapons. If this were the case, it would be devastating for the region.
In the Korean War, around five million people died, and half of these deaths were civilians. Another conflict between the two countries, one that might involve nuclear weapons would be catastrophic. There needs to be stronger collective action from the international community to improve relations in Northeast Asia. To begin with, talks surrounding North Korea’s denuclearization would need to resume. This would likely be accompanied by sanctions relief and economic aid. This would likely decrease tensions in the region and set up North and South Korea to engage in productive negotiations.
With an increase in North Korea’s hostility, the international community needs to take action before a serious conflict begins.
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