The Richardson Effect

After a weather-related delay, South Korea says it is determined to continue with live-fire exercises in the Yellow Sea islands.

“The planned firing drill is part of the usual exercises conducted by our troops based on Yeonpyeong Island. The drill can be justifiable, as it will occur within our territorial waters,” said the JCS official. “We won’t take into consideration North Korean threats and diplomatic situations before holding the live-fire drill. If weather permits, it will be held as scheduled.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Ramstad accurately describes what is really at stake here:

The test will take place on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which North Korean forces shelled last month in what appears to be an effort to effectively redefine border territory in the Yellow Sea off the countries’ west coast. The shelling killed four South Koreans, two of them civilians. With the test, South Korea is walking a tightrope by trying to defend waters it has controlled since the Korean War of the 1950s in a way that doesn’t escalate into more fighting, which would threaten the safety of its 50 million people and the vibrancy of its economy, the world’s 15th-biggest.

In a move that’s certain to resolve absolutely nothing whatsoever, the U.N. Security Council is holding “emergency closed-door consultations.” North Korea, which was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, is also threatening the United States:

In a statement, North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman said: “We will be sure to settle scores with the U.S. for the extreme situation on the Korean peninsula. Our military does not speak empty words.”

See also:

Uriminzokkiri, the communist state’s official Web site, also said in a commentary that war on the Korean Peninsula is only a matter of time, stoking already high tensions after the North shelled a western South Korean island on Nov. 23 and killed four people. “If war breaks out, it will lead to nuclear warfare and not be limited to the Korean Peninsula,” it said.

It is also calling about 20 American military personnel who will participate in the exercises “human shields.”

I think it should be obvious whose fault all of this is: Bill Richardson! But to be completely serious, his visit shows no evidence of accomplishing the stated objective of reducing tensions. If anything, Richardson has given the North Koreans a louder media megaphone for its threats and encouraged its extortionate bombast. He also reminds us why we call him “Kim Jong Bill”:

“I hope that the U.N. Security Council will pass a strong resolution calling for self-restraint from all sides in order to seek peaceful means to resolve this dispute,” the statement read. “A U.N. resolution could provide cover for all sides that prevents aggressive military action.”

Substantively, this is indistinguishable from what the ChiCom Foreign Ministry is saying, and just as dangerously illogical. Let’s begin with the fact that North Korea specifically ceded four Yellow Sea islands to South Korea in the 1953 Armistice Agreement. The relevant provision is found in Article II, Paragraph 13(b):

[A]ll the islands lying to the north and west of the provincial boundary line between HWANGHAE-DO and KYONGGI-DO shall be under the military control of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army and the Commander of the Chinese People’s volunteers, except the island groups of PAENGYONG-DO (37 58′ N, 124 40′ E), TAECHONG-DO (37 50′ N, 124 42′ E), SOCHONG-DO (37 46′ N, 124 46′ E), YONPYONG-DO (37 38′ N, 125 40′ E), and U-DO (37 36’N, 125 58′ E), which shall remain under the military control of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command. All the island on the west coast of Korea lying south of the above-mentioned boundary line shall remain under the military control of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command. (See Map 3).


The agreement did not delineate between the two de facto states’ territorial waters, so we default to international customary law, which provides that a nation’s territorial sea extends for 12 nautical miles (or 14 terrestrial miles, or 22 kilometers) from its coastline at low tide, or to the mid-point to a neighboring nation’s coastline, whichever is less. There are North Korean islets just 1.67 miles north of Yeonpyeong, so South Korea’s territorial sea excludes most of the waters north of the island, but the 14-mile radius from Yeonpyeong-Do overlaps with the 14-mile radius from the nearest South Korean island to the east, meaning that South Korea is entitled to describe the 22-mile wide stretch of water between them as its “territorial sea.” (The status of the waters between Yeonpyeong-Do and the outlying islands to the west is more complex, although the status of the islands and the waters within 14 miles of their coastlines is controlled by the same principles.) Clearly, then, the waters within 14 miles of Yeonpyeong-Do, except those to the North, are South Korean waters. There is no basis in international law for North Korea’s novel and unilateral claim of all of the surrounding waters, save the restrictive corridors to the south of them.


To reasonable minds, “restraint” has nothing to do with what you do on your own side of the border, as long as it poses no threat to your neighbor (otherwise, it’s called “sovereignty”). “Restraint” means not shelling your neighbor or sinking its warships. North Korea has done both of these things in the last seven months. South Korea is contemplating nothing of the kind. Its Joint Chiefs of Staff have stated that “the artillery guns on Yeonpyeong will be aimed southwest and away from North Korea for the drill.” It is North Korea that needs to show restraint. A nation that is under the threat of an armed attack has a right under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter to defend its territory, and restraint does not require the abandonment of that right, or of the preparedness it demands, or of the exercises that are essential to preparedness. These exercises are taking place inside South Korean territory, spurious North Korean claims notwithstanding.

North Korea counts on weak-minded emissaries like Bill Richardson to meet its utterly unreasonable demands half way, in the same way that disreputable merchants raise prices 50% in September to convince addle-brained customers that a 25% discount in December is a great deal. There isn’t much of a case to be made that his visit has reduced tensions with North Korea; in fact, one can argue that his grandstanding, ill-timed visit has had had exactly the opposite effect.

Update: It’s our big annual apocalypse aversion sale! Save big on all MIA remains! This week only, plutonium fuel rods (see manager for pricing)! Bring your U.N. inspectors to see what Sig Hecker has already seen, but mostly, bring lots of cash!


  1. In Cold War I, Russia was our main adversary, supported by China. We seem to be heading into Cold War II, with our main adversary, China, supported by Russia. Mitch MCConnell and John Kyl, opposing New Start, help Russia to make this bad decision.

    Closer to the topic, let’s wait till Bill Richardson comes home before we draw definite conclusions about his visit to North Korea.


  2. Closer to the topic, let’s wait till Bill Richardson comes home before we draw definite conclusions about his visit to North Korea.

    It’ll be too late by then — the exercises are going to begin shortly.

    I don’t expect the North to sit idly by and allow these exercises to continue — there’s too much at stake; all the North has is their rhetoric, and pride.

    It’s a worrisome situation; I have friends there and I’m very concerned for their, and the South Korean people’s, safety. May God help them.


  3. @Glans, Taking into account China failed attempts to to rein in North Korea (they are actually trying this time) why should we any faith in a has-been Governor of a minor state.

    I bet North Korea is giving him the typical diplomatic runaround while using these “negotiations” to support their claims that they are “trying” to negotiate reasonably and peaceably.


  4. “Cold War II” is hysteria.

    Even if there were a renewal of hostilities on the peninsula, one would find Russia and China amenable to direction from the UN, albeit they would not entirely be aligned with it and the USA. They have genuine geo-political interests in an economically successful but dependent, united, Korea allied with them against Japan. (They too would prefer One Free Korea– just one that is a little different from our preference.)

    That isn’t the Cold War. The Cold War was a challenge of doctrines — and Communism lost, while Western liberalism won, mightily. Neither China nor Russia are today in thrall to the pernicious doctrines of Marx.

    We had enough trouble with the really dumb domino theory in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (and before any reader tries to champion it — the dominoes did not fall in Malaya, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Burma, Thailand or the Philippines, nor in Australia, New Zealand or India)

    The Cold War is over. We’ll know the Korean war is about to start again when China closes its border and evacuates about 5 to 10 kilometers inland of it. Until then, it’s sabre-rattling.


  5. (and before any reader tries to champion it — the dominoes did not fall in Malaya, …

    I take it the Malay Emergency doesn’t ring a bell?

    Japan was occupied by a certain army of which you might have read.

    Ditto Philippines.


  6. The North decides that discretion is the better part of not getting mashed into a pulp:

    Rodong Sinmun: All Koreans must wage dynamic struggle to frustrate US imperialists & puppet warmongers to provoke new war.

    This just makes me wonder how long they’ll wait to swat at the hornet’s nest again.


  7. If the Rodong Shinmun resorts back to its usually rhetoric, then that means they have backed down again. Imperative this time is why innocent South Koreans need to be killed by the DPRK again. More importantly, why does the DPRK get away constantly with murdering ROK citizens and it is all swept under the rug?


  8. The DPRK regime is entering the first phases of introduction to instability. All their poisons are finally hatchiing out to thier public. Manmade Gods lie, Truth does not.


  9. Ditto81 is right. Jucheism is failing, and the empty ‘prophecy’ that 2012 (Juche year 100, in honor of KIS’s birth) will be the year that the DPRK attains the status of a ‘powerful and prosperous nation’ is painting the cult leaders into an economic corner the same way that they are painting themselves into a military corner with these unwise provocations (Cheonan/Yeongpyeong-do).

    As Ditto81 points out, the Truth is getting in, taking hold, and that spells i-n-s-t-a-b-i-l-i-t-y.


  10. bastiches,

    the Malayan Emergency was over by the late 50s: at the same time, there was the Huk (Hukbalahuk, I believe) Communist inspired insurrection in the Philippines that was put down. Neither flamed up after we lost Vietnam. In 1967, while we were losing in Vietnam, the Communist takeover of Indonesia at the end of Sukarno’s reign was put down (bloodily). So I don’t think the domino theory was ever valid.

    What was, at all times valid was George Kennan’s “long telegram” theory of containment, encirclement and counter-force. In a strange way, that still appears to be our policy towards the DPRK, — and in today’s world, China, Russia and Japan are complicit with us.


  11. look what richardson will tout himself of having accomplished:

    some of it wanted to make me gag, like these:

    Shipping the rods out of the country would mean they cannot be used to make atomic bombs.

    I thought uranium bombs fall into the atomic category.

    Some analysts say it is not clear if North Korea expects any concessions from regional powers in return for the nuclear offers.

    Oh pullllleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezzzzzzzzz………………..

    He said Pyongyang also is willing to set up a hotline between the North and South Korean militaries to avert potential crises.

    How many hotlines do we need to set up? Reminds me of a company I used to work at…..there’s a ‘task force’ set up everytime a male pees on the toilet seat.

    …but he said he was not representing the Obama administration on this occasion.

    Is that like when Bill Gates and Steve Balmer sold the Q DOS operating system to IBM before owning it?


  12. james, I’m confident that the entire OFK community will endorse the firm policy of Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton. I’ve asked a few times, which administration’s North Korea policy was better than Obama’s, and I’ve never received an answer.


  13. I’ve repeatedly said that the Obama NK policy beats the Bush NK policy, hands down. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But then, circumstances have constrained Obama’s policy more than Bush’s. The North Koreans thought they could roll Obama, and they badly misjudged by leaving him no choice but to push for sanctions. Sure, it leaves plenty to be desired on how sanctions are being implemented and on just where this is all leading (talks? regime change? arrested decay?) but it sure beats my low expectations.

    It’s tempting to wonder how much tougher McCain’s policy might have been, but the interesting dynamic here is that the media were as skeptical of Bush’s policies (even when he was right) as they’ve been solicitous of Obama’s. McCain wouldn’t have caught the same breaks. He wouldn’t have gotten away with being tough. Think of the irony here. Sort of an equal and opposite of only Nixon can go to China.


  14. Obama’s done a pretty good job on NK policy and there is much to be commended, but he’s made two bad moves in the past month:

    1) Allowing Richardson to visit Pyongyang.

    2) Reopening the “New York channel,” that is, restarting backchannel dialogue via North Korea’s UN embassy. (via Yonhap News today)

    I think the administration needs to be cautious about handing the NORKs these little propaganda victories. These events become distorted and then are used to bolster the legitimacy of the regime in domestic propaganda. It also makes it look like the US is rewarding bad behavior and sets the precedent that when KJI throws a temper tantrum, we will respond by giving in.


  15. The vaunted “New York channel” is often little more than a fax machine or answering machine. It never really closed and has no real diplomatic significance, although I can see Yonhap getting excited without this background knowledge.


  16. On the Ramstad WSJ piece, there are a couple of things he is missing. Yes, PRC is afraid to criticize North Korea _at the UN_, but not in its domestic media.

    Chinese media peninsular strategy for the past month:

    – Downplay the KPA’s having initiated Yeonpyeong incident (but allow some sympathetic reporting and photos regarding civilians on the island so as to reinforce the general harm that war poses), yoke responsibility for tensions on both Koreas (keeping in mind the need to reconsolidate relations with Pyongyang after Dai Bingguo got embarrassed),call for Six Party Talks (preserving the central PRC role in mediating just in case Kim gets some funny idea about doing actual business with Richardson)… and imply in the sizable yet nevertheless endemically vague wave of anti-Liu Xiaobo articles that China, yes, China was deserving of the Nobel Prize for Peace due to its even-handed handling of the Korean peninsula situation.

    Today, the tack is to freak out over the ROK artillery drills, leaving South Korea standing as the final provocateur, making them front-page news pretty much everywhere…so that the DRPK can get some positive reinforcement for its restraint in not retaliating. The Global Times today spells it out in an op-ed which by North Korean standards is either fairly clever, or indicates how desperate China has become to quiet this whole thing down. (“Applause for North Korean Restraint,” which wins the prize for most unlikely headline of the year…Chinese version here, which includes a little tit-for-tat insult that South Koreans who laugh at North Korean “cowardice” “sound like three-year-old children.”)

    However, it might be worth noting that while South Korea seems to get little more than verbal rifle butts from Beijing’s English-language media of late (anger over military drills, unusually straight statements that Seoul can never unilaterally unify Korean peninsula, etc.), the Chinese-language press in the PRC always makes a few things clear:

    – North Korea is overly arrogant (see May 2010 writings after “nuclear fission” announcement)
    – North Korea is poor, and its leadership (as opposed to its socialist system) is weird
    – South Korea has vastly superior armaments (known via persistently specific reporting)
    – South Korea has public opinion and civil society (the absence of which in DPRK is obvious)
    – Responsibility for peace on peninsula is in large measure up to South Korea, because North Korea basically refuses to change

    The tendency to go easy on North Korea in English publications, while critiquing them in Chinese, has been more evident lately. Yesterday’s Global Times (basically the English-language foreign-affairs offshoot of People’s Daily) op-ed “US destructive role in Northeast Asia” can be contrasted with today’s Chinese-language op-ed, 但愿朝韩的心理昨天扯平了 (“If Only Yesterday[‘s Drills] Psychologically Equalized North and South Korea.”

    A few highlights from the latter piece include: “The power and pressure of the ROK-US military alliance on North Korea doesn’t need to be demonstrated. Even if North Korea has already taken up nuclear weapons, American nuclear power could wipe North Korea from the map. This, and the fact that South Korean population outnumbers North Korean by a factor of two or three, and has economic power even more times larger than North Korea, is also clear.”

    I don’t know about you, but apart from the first sentence, that sounds like something Mike Mullen might say openly, that is, if he felt like making North Korea really very mad. But this appears in a nationalistic/pugilistic standard Chinese publication on foreign affairs, and no one notices, and KCNA keeps its mouth shut about it.

    Is it the case that the North Korean Embassy in Beijing simply does not read the Huanqiu Shibao? Is it possible that couched in its criticisms of South Korea, the Chinese media is in no way rather forcefully reminding the DPRK that it would get very badly beaten in a conventional (or even a nuclear) war?

    In other words, it is a mistake to judge China’s actual thinking (or its actual _stance_) on the North Korean issue by what they tell you they think in English. The domestic discussion in China of the Korea problem is still barnacled with all manner of inconsistencies and barriers to information, but it deserves a little better treatment than the assumption that Shen Dingli in Shanghai and Lu Chao in Liaoning represent the uncritical consensus on the DPRK.

    By the way, if this counts as progress (sure, 60 years late, but it is after all the anniversary season in China, and therefore time to consolidate and capitalize upon master narratives), popular magazines in China are now recounting the Korean War as having been started by a North Korean “advance” into the South. So Kim Il Sung is looking a bit worse for wear these days. Granite Studio has a good post on evolving Korean War narratives, and some speculation on Xi Jinping’s Korea policy. On Xi Jinping, I’m hoping you’ll keep attacking there as well.

    There is also this new North Korea International Documentation Project working paper which spends over a hundred beautifully footnoted pages recalling a time (1968) when the DPRK was agitating for war and chafing about Chinese arrogance.

    Thanks, Joshua, for keeping up your onslaught of links and commentary, it’s inspiring and certainly needed.


  17. Oh, here we go again…

    Bush served during the disastrous Sunshine Policy years of Kim Dae-jung and Roe Myu-hyun.

    Obama serves during the years of conservative hawk Lee Myung-bak.

    Seoul’s policies toward Pyongyang are far more influential on our NK policy than anything Washington cooks up.

    Give the credit/blame where it belongs: to the Korean heads of state and not to Bush and Obama.

    Peace on earth, good will towards men.


  18. That’s progress of a sort in China, but far, far short of what the situation demands, even if China were just an influential neighbor and not a member of UNSC P-5.


  19. david woolley is right. “Cold War II” is hysteria.

    A “carrier killer” missile appears to be approaching deployment. But Vice Admiral David J. Dorsett says, “Have you seen them deploy large groups of naval forces? No. Have we seen large, joint, sophisticated exercises? No. Do they have any combat proficiency? No.” They still have limited proficiency in landing planes on carriers and operating them as part of larger groups at sea.


  20. Thank you, glans, and I apologize if I was overly dramatic.

    I’m not particularly affeared of the Carrier-busting missile. First, there really is no defense against even thirty year old heavy missiles if they are used in quantity — so our carriers are used in stand-off roles to minimise the effects of such heavy short-rangers. If the Chinese have developed semi-ballistic medium rangers, then that’s what Aegis is designed for– provided there are fewer than 60 or so in any attack, But really, why worry about missiles when all major nations have absolutely undetectable and unstoppable wake-homing torpedoes? They’ve been around for 30 years, are little known, but are potential game changers. They destroy the ship’s propellers and rudder. An aircraft carrier with no propulsion is no threat — indeed, is just a target.


  21. Cold War, Shmold War. Elisabeth Bumiller, aboard a U.S. military aircraft, reports: U.S. Will Counter Chinese Arms Buildup. SecDef Robert M. Gates says, “They clearly have potential to put some of our capabilities at risk, and we have to pay attention to them, we have to respond appropriately with our own programs,” but “… history’s dustbins are filled with countries that underestimated the reslience of the United States.”

    Gates will have a nice visit in Beijing, and President Hu Jintao will have a nice visit with President Barack Obama. It’s going to be all right.