On the night of 26 March, the South Korean navy ship Cheonan split in half and sank while patrolling not far from the North Korean coast. Forty six sailors died.
The cause is still unclear, but the South Korean and US governments are keen to convince the world that North Korea was responsible.
Reports rarely mention that the US and South Korea were holding a joint naval exercise around 60 miles to the south.
With the backing of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak is ratcheting up tensions on the peninsula. He has cut off ties with the North, put on shows of military might and enforced an exclusion zone on North Korean ships.
The South Korean government’s investigation concluded the ship had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo.
This has allowed Lee to whip up fear and anger in the South, and led to a predictable round of calls for stern measures from the “international community”.
However, there are dissenting voices from Korea’s neighbours. China called for the UN Armistice Commission, set up in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, to be reconvened. Russia has sent its own team of experts to review the South Korean investigation findings.
For its part, North Korea continues to deny any involvement in the sinking, drawing a parallel with the lies used to justify the occupation of Iraq.
South Korean opinion is divided and many people believe that the unpopular right wing government is using the incident to bolster support. Important regional elections take place this week.
Many even suspect that their government may have fabricated evidence. This would be nothing new as there have been numerous previous cases of North Korean “provocations” that were used to boost the fortunes of the South Korean right.
In fact, “wagging the dog” is such a well established feature of South Korean politics that there is a Korean term for it—the “north wind”.
More generally, the current crisis stems from the ongoing conflict between the two Koreas over their maritime border, which was drawn after the Korean War by the UN side—which backed the South. It is not an extension of the land border but curves up the North Korean coast.
A conflict over lucrative crab fishing rights in the area has led to several violent naval clashes in the last decade, which have resulted in the deaths of North Korean sailors. The most recent of these occurred last November. It left a North Korean naval ship badly damaged with an unknown number of casualties.
US imperialism lies behind the 1945 division of the Korean peninsula and the ongoing conflict between the two Koreas. Using its huge military bases in Japan and South Korea the US wants to maintain its increasingly precarious dominance in East Asia and keep China hemmed in.
But North Korea has remained a thorn in America’s side, continuing to “defy the international community” and maintain its independence despite its economic collapse.
Now the situation is becoming more complex, and potentially more dangerous. Korea is caught in a vortex of power relations between China, Japan, Russia and the US.
South Korea is beginning to flex its military and political muscle in the region. It is one of the world’s biggest military spenders and second only to Israel as a buyer of US arms.
South Korea and the US have decided to use this incident both to put pressure on the North and to revive the flagging political fortunes of President Lee—whether the North was involved or not.
This is an extremely dangerous game. Both sides have nuclear weapons and the consequences of a war are unimaginable for all 70 million Koreans.
Anti-war activists and socialists around the world should oppose this “strategy of tension”.
Owen Miller is a research associate in the Centre for Korean Studies at SOAS. He is the author of North Korea’s Hidden History in International Socialism journal issue 109 at » www.isj.org.uk For more on the crisis see the interview with historian Bruce Cumings at » www.democracynow.org/2010/5/27/nk