28 February 2011


John Nilsson-Wright

Dr John Nilsson-Wright

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


  • The military confrontation between North Korea and South Korea in the closing months of 2010 was a time of maximum danger for the Korean peninsula. But it also offered a rare opportunity for reinvigorating alliance cooperation between the United States, South Korea and Japan.
  • North Korea's shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island on 23 November seemed to be part of a pattern of deliberate provocation by the North. The intention appeared to be testing the political resolve and military preparedness of the government in Seoul, while shoring up the authority of the Pyongyang government, which faces economic difficulties and a politically challenging leadership transition. Yet by early January 2011 both governments were signalling a much more accommodating approach to one another.
  • As a consequence, there has been a new spirit of resolve and cooperation between the United States and its key East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. Their partnership appears to be evolving from separate, strong bilateral alliances into a closer, more substantive arrangement.
  • The Obama administration seems to be moving away from the cautious policy of 'strategic patience' with North Korea of the last two years, and towards the more active pursuit of talks with Pyongyang.
  • Transforming rhetoric into concrete progress will be difficult, not least because improving relations between the international community and the DPRK is likely to require a range of complex initiatives.
  • The focus on re-exploring the opportunities for dialogue currently embraced by all the parties that have a stake in peace on the Korean peninsula represents an important and encouraging sign of a new commitment to end the impasse.