Last week, a South Korean report concluded that North Korea fired the torpedo that sank the Cheonan on March 26, due to identifiable markings from missile fragments. Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed in the incident. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went this week to Asia on a diplomatic trip, originally aimed at pressing China to loosen economic regulations against the U.S. However, with the results of the South Korean investigation released, this issue has been brought to the forefront.
On Wednesday, Clinton stopped in South Korea, publicly announcing U.S. support and calling for North Korea to “halt its provocations and its policy of threats and belligerence.” Technically, the two Koreas have never stopped fighting since the Korean War in 1950. The conflict ended with an armistice, not an actual peace treaty. (Read CNN Andrew Salmon’s explanation for why two Koreas exist here.) Since then, small-scale military skirmishes have, but nothing that has provoked such international outrage.
For now, tensions are rising. As of Thursday, South Korea began anti-submarine exercises. The U.S. has around 28,000 troops in South Korea and will assist South Korea in conducting further naval military exercises. Unfortunately, blatant war-preparedness is only sparking further vengeance, since North Korea flatly denies involvement. A North Korean news agency promised Thursday that “the DPRK [North Korea] will react to confrontation with confrontation, and to a war with an all-out war.”
Is war imminent? Salmon believes “prosperous South Korea simply has too much to lose from war,” but if the North keeps refusing to accept blame, things could escalate for the worse. This could affect our U.S. troop deployments as well as international South Korean students, who might find it difficult to obtain visas since South Korea still has a mandatory draft in place. The draft would likely be prioritized for South Korea in a time of war over a foreign education. If China stops its neutrality and supports North Korea in an “all-out war,” many Asians here, not just South Koreans, will face tough decisions, especially if they still have family back in Asia.