Multiple flashpoints threaten to ignite East Asia
It was the South Korean government that attempted on Oct. 22 to halt the planned balloon-drop of some 200,000 anti-North Korea pamphlets across the border into the DPRK by activists (similar to the parachute-drop of teddy bears into Belarus earlier this year). North Korea had threatened military action if the South Korean activists carried out their plan. In a post to its official Korean Central News Agency site, North Korean authorities stated that the plan "was directly invented by the group of traitors and is being engineered by the [S]outh Korean military," pledging that if any leaflets were detected on the north side of the border to respond with a "merciless military strike." So South Korean police closed roads and evacuated residents from the border zone—but activists nonetheless were successful in releasing the balloons, and no military response from the North has been initiated (yet).
Activists, including Free North Korea Radio, stated that they only sought to educate North Koreans about rights abuses by their government, and would not back down to threats—noting that they had pulled off the stunt before. "We had similar threats last year and they did not stop us before and this is not going to stop us this time," said Pak Sang-hak, a North Korean exile who defected to the South 12 years ago.
South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin pledged before a parliamentary committee that in the event of a military strike, "there would be a perfect response against the source of the attack." (Jurist, Oct. 22; Reuters, Oct. 19)
Ominously, the affair came to a head just as the South Korean Coast Guard announced that it would take legal action and seek arrest warrants for 11 Chinese crewmen and fishermen for obstruction of justice following an incident in which Chinese fishing vessels entered waters claimed as within South Korea's Exclusive Economic Zone. One Chinese crewman died from injuries sustained in a South Korean Coast Guard raid Oct. 16. The Coast Guard claims the Chinese crewmen resisted with (non-firearm) weapons, such as axes and saws. The crewman who lost his life was hit by a rubber bullet fired by a Coast Guard officer.
There have been numerous such clashes in recent years in the waters that the Chinese (and most of the rest of the world) call the Yellow Sea and the Koreans call the West Sea. Given that these waters are thought to contain hydrocarbon wealth as well as rich fish stocks, it is probably safe to assume that the fishermen have received some degree of quiet encouragement from Beijing to stake a claim. (AsiaOne, Oct. 19)
And finally, Beijing announced that China will carry out a military drill this weekend to "prepare for any contingencies" near the disputed island chain in the East China Sea called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. China's official Xinhua news agency says eleven naval ships from Bejing's Marine Surveillance Force and fishery administration as well as eight fighter jets and helicopters will take part in the exercise. Although the Chinese Navy stressed that it's only a part of their annual exercise, this constitutes the first time Beijing has deployed such forces to the waters around the disputed islands. (Arirang, Oct. 19)
A bizarre photo essay on NBC News Oct. 22 informs us that a theme park has opened at Wuxiang, Shanxi province, near the World War II headquarters of Mao Zedong's Eighth Route Army, which resisted the occupying Japanese. At the "Eighth Route Army Culture Park," visitors get dressed up in period battle gear and are given toy rifles with which they "shoot" actors dressed as Japanese troops, who obligingly fall down and gush fake blood. The faux Japanese soldiers also enact atrocities, mock-brutalizing actors representing Chinese peasants. War propaganda straight up, with only a thin veneer of Colonial Williamsburg-type didacticism. (And all the more surreal given how thoroughly China's contemporary capitalist state has betrayed the legacy of Mao.)
China, Japan and South Korea (although not North Korea) have all got way too much invested in trade with each other, and in globalization generally, to actually intend to go to war. But brinkmanship is a dangerous game, and events have a habit of taking on a life of their own (see Sarajevo 1914). As in the similar game that the West is playing with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, there is plenty of potential for things to spiral out of control very quickly...