Over the past week, tensions have continued to mount between North and South Korea, in the wake of Pyongyang’s recent rocket and nuclear tests.
On 11 February, North Korea vowed to cut two key communication hotlines with the South. The latest move comes after Seoul suspended its operations at the jointly-run Kaesong industrial complex in the North. Kaesong is one of the last points of co-operation between the two Koreas and a key source of revenue for Pyongyang. The North has called the shutdown “a declaration of war” and has designated Kaesong as a military zone. Seoul meanwhile has stated that the suspension is aimed at cutting off money, which the North uses for nuclear and missile development. On Thursday, Pyongyang also vowed to seize the assets of South Korean companies in Kaesong, and said that all workers from the South had to leave by 17:30 local time (08:30 GMT). South Korean companies had already started withdrawing managers, equipment and stock after Seoul announced the suspension. However according to sources, some South Korean workers were still in Kaesong after the deadline, stating that they had been instructed to wait for further instructions from South Korean officials.
North Korea previously cut communication hotlines with the South in 2013, however it reopened them after relations between the two countries improved. The hotlines, which are intended to defuse dangerous military situation, include one used by the military and another used to communicate with the United Nations Command at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. A third hotline is maintained by the Red Cross.
Last month, Pyongyang carried out its fourth nuclear test, while on Sunday (7 February), it launched a satellite into space. Both moves have drawn international condemnation.
The latest showdown between the two Koreas comes as the United States Senate voted unanimously in favor of tougher sanctions against North Korea. The draft legislation targets any person or entity trading or financing anything related to weapons of mass destruction, conventional arms proliferation, North Korea’s rocket programme, money laundering, narcotics trafficking, human rights abuses, activities that threaten US cyber security, and the import of luxury goods. While all were already sanctioned, the latest measures aim to tighten the restrictions. The bill also authorities US $50 million for radio broadcasts into North Korea and humanitarian aid programmes. Last month, the House of Representatives passed a similar bill. The two will now have to be reconciled into a final measure, which will need to be signed of by President Barack Obama.
Relations between North and South Korea have been strained even further by Pyongyang’s
announcement that its Yongbyon nuclear reactor is once more fully operational.
“All the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon [Nuclear Scientiﬁc Research Centre], including the uranium enrichment plant and ﬁve megawatt reactor were rearranged, changed or readjusted and they started normal operation,” the director of the Atomic Energy Institute (AEI) told the North’s Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday.
The Yongbyon reactor, widely regarded as the country’s principal source of weapons-grade
plutonium and capable of producing up to 6 kilograms of the radioactive element per year, was supposedly shut down in 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord. However, satellite imagery analysis conducted after Pyongyang’s last nuclear test in 2013 showed that work on the site was being continued, despite the embargo.
The AEI director said scientists have been working on improving both the “quality and quantity” of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, which would be used without hesitation against the United States and other western aggressors. “If the US and other hostile forces persistently seek their reckless hostile policy … [North Korea] is fully ready to cope with them with nuclear weapons any time,” he said.
This announcement came after Pyongyang hinted on Monday that it might be preparing to launch satellites mounted on long-range rockets to commemorate the regime’s 70th anniversary on October 10. Widely viewed as a test of its long-range missile technology, the prospective launches have sparked criticism from the South. “Any launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea is a serious act of provocation,” South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok said at a press brieﬁng. “It is a military threat and a clear violation of the UN resolutions banning (North Korea) from any activities using ballistic missile technology.”
In response, North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration director defended his country’s sovereign right to pursue space development for peaceful purposes. North Korea spent decades attempting to reach space with a multi-stage rocket until it ﬁnally succeeded in launching its ﬁrst native satellite in 2012.
High level negotiations between Seoul and Pyongyang have eased tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where the possibility of a military clash has loomed large since a rare exchange of fire across the border late last week.
In recent weeks relations between the two states have became increasingly hostile. Earlier this month, two members of a South Korean border patrol were seriously injured in a mine blast, an incident described by Seoul as a cowardly act of provocation which merited “harsh” retaliation. Pyongyang was similarly incensed by the commencement of joint military exercises between South Korea and the US – an annual event which the North believes is preparation for war and the eventual occupation of their capital.
These exercises were temporarily suspended after an exchange of artillery fire across the border on Thursday 20 August. According to South Korea’s defence ministry, shortly before 4pm local time, a single North Korean artillery shell was fired across the border. Minutes later, this was followed by several more shells which fell harmlessly into the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). In retaliation, South Korea fired dozens of artillery rounds back across the border while placing its troops on maximum alert and ordering the residents of Yeoncheon county to evacuate their homes. So far no one from either side of the border is reported to have been injured in this exchange of fire.
After several troubling days, the standoff ended earlier today when an agreement was reached by negotiators in Panmunjom, an abandoned village north of the Military Demarcation Line where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. Talks began on Saturday evening after Seoul passed a deadline imposed by Pyongyang to end propaganda broadcasts across the border or face the possibility of military action. The South eventually agreed to this demand and in turn, the North agreed to voice its regret over the injuries sustained by the two South Korean soldiers. Former South Korean diplomat and current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has congratulated both sides for speedily resolving the crisis before it was allowed to escalate and expressed the hope that the two countries could use this decision as a springboard to solve other problems which affect the troubled peninsula.
As of 11 June 2015, 122 laboratory-confirmed cases of human infection with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Coronavirus have been reported by the South Korean health ministry, including 10 fatalities, making it the largest outbreak of MERS outside the Arabian Peninsula. Over the past three weeks, more than 3,800 people have been placed under quarantine, 641 of whom have been released after testing negative for MERS. For those infected during either the first or the second wave of the outbreak, the virus’s maximum two week incubation period has elapsed, a fact which has caused health officials to speculate that the disease has already peaked. Whether it has or not will depend on whether the containment measures adopted by the South Korean government were able to identify, isolate and treat those who had come into contact with the disease.
First identified in humans in September 2012, MERS is a viral respiratory illness from the same family as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the disease that struck China in 2003, infecting more than 5,300 people and killing 349 nationwide. There is no vaccine for MERS and doctors do not entirely understand how it is spread, except that it appears to be a zoonotic disease passed to humans from infected camels and bats. Most people infected with MERS become unwell quickly, experiencing fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea and muscle pain. Like other respiratory infections, it is not always possible to identify patients who have contracted MERS, as they may present with a range of non-specific symptoms in the early stages of the disease.
President Park Geun-hye’s government has been criticised for its failure to respond more swiftly to the outbreak of the disease and to identify “patient zero”: the 68-year old South Korean who returned home after an eight day trip to the Middle East where he had developed a cough and fever. After seeking treatment from four different health care facilities, the index patient was eventually hospitalised in Pyeongtaek, a city 65 kilometres southwest of Seoul. While refusing to name the specific hospitals and clinics visited by the patient, South Korean health authorities have confirmed that MERS cases were subsequently reported in three of the four institutions in question.
While health officials remain optimistic about containing the outbreak, its effect on South Korea’s economy is likely to have more far-reaching consequences. In what the Bank of Korea Governor Lee Ju-yeol described as a “pre-emptive more to contain the economic fallout from MERS”, interest rates have been lowered by a quarter of a percentage point to 1.5 percent. While precautionary measures such as these are doubtless in order, their effects have yet to be felt. Consumer confidence has been noticeably shaken by the virus’s spread and South Korean businesses, particularly those in hospitality and retail, have reported a sharp decline in sales. Tourism and international business has likewise been effected, with over 54,000 foreign travellers cancelling their plans to visit South Korea this month.
As the situation in South Korea continues to develop, concerns have been raised by health care professionals over MERS potential to become a global threat. While MERS is considered to be a potential pandemic threat, it seems unlikely that this particular outbreak will take on such catastrophic proportions. First, MERS is not a human virus. While it can be contracted by humans from infected animals, it is not highly contagious; in order for it to go pandemic – to pose an existential threat to members of the community – it would need to mutate. Second, the outbreak is comparatively small and mostly centred on hospitals and clinics. Although MERS spreads poorly between people, medical procedures and equipment, such as respirators, may aerosolise the virus from the lungs and infect people nearby. As a situation like this is unlikely to arise outside of a hospital setting, the spread of the disease is likely to be slow and once detected, more easily contained. Third, MERS is not SARS. While related, these two diseases differ in one important respect: SARS had developed the ability to be easily spread between people while MERS has not. Whether MERS will at some point in the future undergo genetic mutation enabling it to infect humans more easily is, at this point, mere speculation.
Tensions rose on Monday as North and South Korea traded hundreds of rounds of live artillery fire across their disputed maritime border, forcing South Korean islanders to take shelter just one day after the North increased tensions by threatening to carry out a “new” nuclear test.
South Korean officials indicated Monday that they had returned fire after North Korean shells landed in its territorial waters. In an attempt to ensure maximum publicity for its live-fire drill, North Korea took an unusual step by notifying the South beforehand. The live-fire exercises were announced by North Korea in a faxed message from its military to the South’s navy, with South Korea warning of an immediate retaliation if any shells were to cross its border.
A statement released by South Korea’s Defence Ministry indicated “some of (North Korea’s) shells landed south of the border during the drill. So our military fired back north of the border in line with ordinary protocol.” South Korea further stated that the sides exchanged hundreds of shells, with Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok indicating that “the North fired some 500 shots…and some 100 of them landed in waters south of the border.” In response, the spokesman indicated that the South had responded to Pyongyang’s “premeditated provocation” by firing 300 shells from K-9 self-propelled howitzer batteries that are based on its front-line islands, adding “if the North takes issue with our legitimate returning of fire and uses it to make yet another provocation towards our sea and islands, we will make a resolute retaliation.” During the three-hour incident, which began at 12:15PM (0315 GMT), border island residents were evacuated to shelters as South Korean fighter jets flew overhead. The evacuation order was lifted an hour after the North ended its drills.
While China, which is North Korea’s largest trading partner, has called for calm and restraint in the wake of the exchange of fire, Monday’s incident, which comes a day after Pyongyang threatened to conduct a “new” type of nuclear test, has largely been seen as a sign of the North’s growing frustration with the United States’ resistance to resume multi-party talks on its nuclear programme. The nuclear negotiations are seen by Pyongyang as an opportunity for it to win material concessions and aid from the international community. Monday’s incident also coincided with a massive, amphibious landing drill by nearly 15,000 South Korean and US troops.
Tensions Increased Over Past Few Weeks
While Monday’s incident is not the first to occur in recent year, North-South tensions have been rising for weeks, undermining hopes that were raised after the North in February of this year hosted the first reunion for more than three years of families that were separated by the war.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been on the rise after North Korea last week test-fired two medium-range Nodong missiles over the sea, its first such launch since 2009. According to the South Korean defence ministry, the missiles were fired from the Suckon region north of Pyongyang and flew for about 650 kilometres (400 miles) before falling into the sea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula. Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok stated that the Nodong “…is capable of hitting not only most of Japan but also Russia and China.” The launch came shortly after US, South Korean and Japanese officials met for talks in the Netherlands. It also came on the fourth anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean warship.
The launch of the two missiles marked a step up from the short-range rockets Pyongyang has fired in recent weeks. Those launches were seen as a response to the current US-South Korea annual military exercises. To date, North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, with the most recent, and most powerful, occurring in February last year.
While the United Nations drew the western border after the Korean War (1950 – 1953), North Korea has never recognised it and the area has been a flashpoint between the two Koreas. It argues that the de-facto maritime boundary was unilaterally drawn by US-led United Nations forces. In late 2010, four South Koreans, two marines and two civilians, were killed on a border island by North Korean artillery fire. At the time, North Korea stated that it was responding to South Korean military exercises that were occurring in the area. Tensions were already high that year after a South Korean warship sank near Baengnyeong island, resulting in the deaths of forty-six people. At the time, Seoul stated that Pyongyan had torpedoed the vessel, however North Korea denied any role in the incident. Border fire was also briefly exchanged in August 2011.