A Look At The South Korean Island Of Yeonpyeong

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks to Thomas Kim, a professor at Scripps College and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Korea Policy Institute, about the small South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. They discuss the geography of that corner of the world — and what role U.S. forces there are playing.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Well, with so much attention focused this week on the small island of Yeonpyeong, we thought it might be useful to take a step back and get a clearer picture of the geography of that corner of the world and also get a sense of what role U.S. forces there are playing.

To help us with that, we've called Thomas Kim. He's a professor at Scripps College and also executive director of the Korea Policy Institute based in Los Angeles. Welcome.

Professor THOMAS KIM (Politics and International Relations, Scripps College; Executive Director, Korea Policy Institute): Hi, thanks for having me.

KELLY: So, let me start with a bit of a primer on the geography here. North Korea and South Korea are, of course, one land mass, this big peninsula hanging down off of China. The DMZ separates the north and south. And Yeonpyeong Island, as we just heard Louisa reporting there, is only about eight miles from the North Korean mainland. Explain a bit the strategic importance.

Prof. KIM: Sure. Well, there are two senses in which Yeonpyeong is actually important. The first obviously is that it's really, really close to both the maritime border and the natural land mass of North Korea. But the other sense in which it's actually very, very important is it has to do with Korea itself. And that is that the northern part of Korea borders both Russia and China. And we say that if Korea was a peninsula in Antarctica, we would have had peace with it decades ago.

KELLY: That's right.

Prof. KIM: Structurally, the incident at Yeonpyeong is really a function of the unresolved Korean War, the continuing political division of Korea, and really, its proximity to Russia, China and Japan. So when Barack Obama is talking about sending an aircraft carrier on its way to North Korea, from the standpoint of the Northeast region, Northeast Asian region, really what we're talking about is an aircraft carrier that is really going toward China and Russia.

KELLY: And talk to us a little bit more about this disputed border. As I understand it, North Korea does accept that Yeonpyeong Island belongs to South Korea. But obviously, there are still ongoing disputes over other parts of the border. How does that factor in and escalate tensions, I assume, when you have flare-ups like we've seen this week?

Prof. KIM: Unfortunately, there are a host of unresolved issues that have come out of the Korean War. The most important, of course, being that you have the continuing division of Korea. The maritime border is the place where, here, you've had incidents in the past, in the 1990s in the early 2000s. It's a place where, really, I think you should have some expectation that there will be continued conflict and you can only hope that these situations don't escalate.

KELLY: We've been talking about legacies of the Korean War. And I want to ask about one legacy that is of obvious interest to Americans and that is the 28,000 U.S. troops still stationed in South Korea. They are spread out across various bases and they would still be a controversial presence. Is that right?

Prof. KIM: That's right. U.S. troops have been in Korea basically uninterrupted since 1945. Recently, those troops have been realigning to the south of South Korea. Now that's important because U.S. bases and personnel will no longer be in the range of North Korean conventional weapons, specifically in the range of artillery.

KELLY: So this was a strategic decision?

Prof. KIM: Yes. And on the one hand, this diminishes the concern that U.S. troops will be drawn into a rapidly escalating fight. But on the other hand, the safety of U.S. bases from North Korean conventional arms has put North Korean hardliners in a stronger position to push for the development of a nuclear weapons program. They can act as a cost-effective deterrent to what they at least perceive as U.S. aggression.

KELLY: Well, Professor Kim, as you watch this situation unfold over the next few days, what sort of things will you be watching for to give us a sense of how this might end up playing out?

Prof. KIM: Well, the first thing that I'm going to be watching for is for China to respond with an emphasis on getting back to the six-party talks. The relationship between China and North Korea is very strong right now and I think in that sense, North Korea I think is unlikely to do anything that will jeopardize that relationship right now.

Secondly, I think that the Chinese are very sensitive to the aircraft carrier coming in. So while on the one hand everyone will be paying attention to how the North Koreans respond to this aircraft carrier and to the resumption of military exercises in that area, I'm actually interested in the way that China and to a lesser extent, Russia responds to this.

From a personal standpoint, I'll also be following what's going on in South Korea. I think that there's a lot of emotional upheaval going on in South Korea right now, a lot of feelings of insecurity. And I would expect that also to, hopefully, die down a little bit. We'll have to see, over the years, how this works into this rather complex relationship.

KELLY: That's Thomas Kim, executive director of the Korea Policy Institute. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Prof. KIM: Thank you.

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