[Editorial] PSI drills will only add to regional instability
Yesterday, the government announced that training for the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) on weapons of mass destruction will take place in the waters off Busan on Oct. 13 and 14. The training was planned as part of the response against North Korea in the wake of the Cheonan’s sinking and includes participation from the navies of South Korea, the United States, Japan and Australia. The PSI is controversial in terms of international law, since it proposes forcible inspections and searches of vessels from particular countries in defiance of the other nations’ right to passage in open sea lanes. It is also likely to have significant repercussions, as exercises that countries like North Korea and China are sure to object to are being carried out for the first time in South Korea waters under South Korean leadership.
The exercises involve stopping and searching vessels suspected of carrying nuclear materials or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). North Korea will obviously interpret this as aimed at closing off its own vessels and ports. Naval blockades in particular are a characteristic of wartime. North Korea has already stated repeatedly that it would regard South Korea’s full participation in the PSI as a declaration of war, calling it “a repudiation not only of international law but also of the armistice agreement, which forbids ‘any kind of blockade’ against the other party to the hostilities.”
North Korea may use these exercises as an excuse to engage in localized provocations in the West Sea or at the armistice line. The way in which things will unfold after the exercises is the subject of grave concern.
These exercises are also very likely to spark objections from China. China has already indicated its alarm over the joint exercises carried out by South Korea and the United States in the waters off the Korean Peninsula following the sinking of the Cheonan, calling them similar in character to a blockade around China. In particular, it has expressed suspicions that South Korea might be assuming the role of an axis in that blockade. It is likely to view these latest exercises as an extension of those joint drills.
Additionally, as China and Japan recently had an intense dispute over the islands known as the Diaoyu islands by China and the Senkaku chain by Japan, the fact that the Japan Self-Defense Forces are taking part in the exercises could lead to even more complicated repercussions.
These PSI exercises are highly undesirable, as they could solidify the antagonism pitting South Korea, the United States, and Japan on one side and North Korea and China on the other, compromising the stability of Northeast Asia.
Nor do the PSI exercises resolve the issue of WMDs. There is no real fundamental solution to the nuclear issue apart from a resumption of the six-party talks process. China and Russia are already moving in that direction, and the U.S. is gradually shifting its attention toward the six-party talks. Amid these circumstances, it is inappropriate for South Korea to be the one leading the way in pursuing a hardline military response against North Korea. These exercises will succeed only in heightening tensions on the peninsula and do not conform to international currents. The plans should be immediately withdrawn.
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