Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

China Rising

by Michelle Brooks

Mounting tensions reached boiling point this week off the Korean peninsular. In a seemingly unprovoked attack, North Korea shelled the tiny island community of Yeonpyeong which lies on the disputed maritime border between North and South Korea. The Northern Limit Line (NLL) was drawn by the then United Nations Command following the 1950-1953 Korean War and is a line that South Korea must not transgress. However whilst this was agreed between South Korea and it’s allies, mainly the United States, it was contested by a then severely beleaguered North Korea.  The NLL which is a curved line (see map above) effectively maroons five (South Korean) islands in the coastal waters of North Korea. This effectivly renders the islanders as the ‘outsiders within’ a perilous life to say the least where ‘within’ is North Korea. Much has been written in human geography about the externalisation of people who whilst holding citizenship of one nation, are geographically positioned in the hands of another, often adversarial neighbour (see work by Alison Mountz). Mountz’ work is in the context of state fear of immigration however the processes of externalization reveal the use of island communities in bearing the burden of wider political sabre rattling.

Additionally, the Korean islands lie amidst some of the worlds richest fishing stocks of hermit crabs, a commodity fought over by America, Japan, and France and jealously guarded by China and North Korea in the past. For a country that has seen food aid from South to North Korea reduced to a trickle since the new administration took charge, devastation to farming from recent floods, and crippling aid sanctions from the west, North Korea has the opportunity to take a meagre portion of moral high ground and has done so at a strategically important time. The incident took place amidst planned joint naval exercises between the U.S. and South Korea near the disputed border just a few miles to the north; the political temperature then climbing further with the arrival of the U.S. (nuclear) aircraft carrier USS George Washington leading to accusations of ‘gunboat diplomacy‘ by America. North Korea has promised ‘a merciless military counter-attack’ should there be any transgression of the territorial boundary (whilst clearly acting without mercy towards the residents of Yeonpyeong prior to any such transgression).

Unfortunately for the small fishing communities on the islands all of this has meant many nights spent in reinforced military bunkers on top of this weeks fatalities and obliteration of property. The presence of the elite South Korean military command post has not had a deterrent effect and arguably provides North Korea with a proximate and hence cheap military target. China has indicated it’s annoyance at the military exercises and is calling for diplomatic engagement with North Korea, refusing to condemn the actions of Kim Jong-il.

China is the single biggest provider of aid to North Korea and Beijing has kept dialogue open despite a plethora of violent and threatening outbursts from Pyongyang over the last few years. Importantly, for China, North Korea is a buffer zone between it and the western-allied South Korea. The question is whether Beijing is prepared to continue walking on egg shells to keep dialogue open with North Korea in the face of pressure from the west to  ‘get tough’ with the Jong-il administration. Whatever the strategy, the world is no longer in any doubt that peace on the prevailing Korean fault-line, lies undoubtedly in the hands of China.


Read about the spatiality of contentious politics for the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.


Read about the NLL


Well-being indicators in North Korea


Read article  by Alison Mountz for the journal Government and Opposition

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