Korean Vortex: Reading the tea leaves

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The increasingly ballistic bluster pouring out from Pyongyang and threatening South Korea, Japan and the USA, with nuclear attacks has jolted East Asia into “paying attention.” Perhaps that’s the real intent of Kim Jong-Un, the new and untested Marxist monarch of the quaintly titled “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

Nonetheless Kim Jong-Un’s churlish tantrum over recent UN Security Council resolutions as well as threatening the long-scheduled U.S./South Korean military exercises, has thrust the strategic Korean peninsula back into the headlines.

Uneasy times for all Koreans, South and North (above in Pyongyang).  /David Guttenfelder/AP
Uneasy times for all Koreans, South and North (above in Pyongyang). /David Guttenfelder/AP

Historically the Korean peninsula has formed the geopolitical vortex of competing power interests; in the past century it focused geopolitical attention of China, Russia, Japan and the USA. And in recent months, those countries have again become intimately involved in trying to defuse a dangerous political confrontation between North Korea and some of its regional neighbors.

Kim Jong-Un operating from his fortified playpen in Pyongyang issues tantrum diktat; he nullified the 1953 Truce ending the hostilities; threatens to attack U.S. bases in Okinawa, Guam and then throws in Hawaii for effect; declares a “state of war” exists with South Korea. The United States has wisely used carefully calibrated rhetoric and measured military response. The flight of two Bat-like B-2 nuclear-capable bombers over southern Korea, unnerved the North’s leadership.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced concern that “we may simply let the situation slip out of control and it will side into a spiral of a vicious circle.”

The People’s Republic of China, long the political mentor of the DPRK, has grown increasingly wary of its unpredictable comrades in Pyongyang and likely regards the new dictator Kim Jong-Un as a reckless player in the sensitive region bordering the Mainland. Recall that both Russia and China, two long time DPRK comrades, joined the USA in a tough UN Security Council censure of North Korea over Pyongyang’s latest nuclear tests.

Nonetheless will the PRC, who nervously serves as a political enabler by offering food and fuel support to its chronically decrepit neighbor, decide to pull the plug?

Yet, the shrill rhetorical threats from the DPRK regime could also be a sign of weakness. Why tell your enemy you are about to attack? And then remind him over and over? South Korea’s population having “seen this movie before” appears nearly numb to the recent crisis. The U.S. is openly exhibiting “strategic patience,” but is armed, ready, and quietly focused.

When Kim Il-Sung’s communists launched the Korean War in June 1950, the attack was a blot out of the blue and thus surprised, and nearly routed, the newly formed Republic of Korea and totally caught the Truman Administration off-guard.

The US/ROK defense Treaty dating to the 1950’s diplomacy of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles is all about deterrence. It has proven as the ultimate insurance policy which has protected South Korea’s success and prosperity and is has kept a bellicose North from taking any fateful steps. The defense of South Korea comes down to deterrence and carefully calibrated diplomacy.

Indeed much of the current crisis stems from North Korea’s nuclear weapons as well as missile tests. Now the north has rockets capable of carrying an atomic payload to Japan, Guam, or the USA.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, himself a South Korean, warned that the “current crisis has already gone too far.” He stated, “Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counter-actions, and fuel fear and instability.”

North Korea’s rogue regime have gone too far indeed. A chronically underfed and economically broke country is looking for aid and “respect.”

Trying to “shake down” South Korea for aid and the international community for continuing humanitarian assistance, has long been in the Kim dynasty playbook. Moreover Pyongyang is trying to manipulate Washington into one-on-one negotiations to frame a peace treaty finally ending the war which Kim Il-Sung (and Stalin) started in 1950. Bilateral DPRK/USA discussions would be a big mistake for Washington in place of the better but moribund Six Party Talks.

Tea Leaf reading time. How long will China humor Kim Jong-Un and allow his DRPK to disrupt regional harmony? Is the DRPK People’s Army truly loyal to the untested Four Star General Jung-Un? Why do some current DPRK pronouncements not dutifully mention Jon-Un by name as is long standard Kim dynasty practice?

Seoul’s respected Korea Times newspaper stated editorially, “One thing seems certain, however; it will be Koreans, especially South Koreans who will have to shoulder the risks of any misjudgment or miscalculation to be made by either Koreas.” So true.

Now the next move on the chessboard may be crucial. The fear is miscalculation. The world waits nervously.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.

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