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New York, May 25, 2010—Now that South Korea’s president re-designated Pyongyang as his country’s “main enemy,” the director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Korean Legal Studies said that represented a “genuine ratcheting-up” of tensions between the two nations.
Jeong-Ho Roh said the level of brinksmanship was raised when North Korea retaliated by severing its few remaining ties with Seoul. Relations had been frayed over accusations the North sunk a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors.
Roh noted that the term “main enemy” used Tuesday by President Lee Myung-Bak was first used in 1995 in response to a threat by North Korea that Seoul would be turned into a “sea of fire” if war broke out. The term was dropped 11 years later as relations between the North and South thawed and was replaced with “direct military threat,” though no precise definition of either label has been given.
“The re-designation of North Korea as the ‘main enemy’ must be interpreted as a genuine ratcheting-up of the stakes,” Roh said. “President Lee needs to rally the people of Korea and demonstrate his resolve.”
In many ways, Roh said, this could be viewed as a linguistic shot across the bow.
“There is now a strong suggestion that the nature of South Korea’s military will have to change in accordance with this designation,” Roh said. “The sinking of the warship is considered to be a military provocation and through this new designation, the Seoul government is putting Pyongyang and Kim Jong-Il on notice that all future provocations from the North will be treated accordingly.”
Roh, who has made numerous visits to North Korea and is an expert on that country’s legal system, said Pyongyang’s response to lee was a “classic attempt at brinksmanship” that was to be expected.
“It attempts to force the parties to choose between the worst case scenario of war and devastation on the Korean Peninsula and the second worst,” Roh said, adding that how this incident ultimately plays out could hinge on China and force the U.S. into a secondary role.
“The United States is now forced to balance security needs of the region with its future relations with China,” Roh said.
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