The North's threat to invoke "wartime laws" against Gomes has to be a bargaining ploy in a scenario that will likely end with his release, presumably in a way that will serve some propaganda purpose. However, the stakes have risen since he was sentenced in April to eight years' hard labor for illegal entry. He's now been promoted from common criminal to prisoner of war, according to Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency, while "the question of how to aggravate the sentence remains".
The KCNA dispatch left no doubt the rationale is U.S. support of South Korea's demand for condemnation of North Korea by the UN Security Council for the sinking of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan in March in which 46 sailors died.
It's easy to bet that Gomes will eventually go home, but an American plea to free him on "humanitarian grounds" will not move North Korean strategists who have already vowed to "punish" South Korea for pressing the Cheonan case in the United Nations.
The price for Gomes' freedom is sure to be quite different from that of others in similar dire straits. The confrontation has deepened since a pair of San Francisco Internet TV journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, spent 140 days in the North last year after North Korean guards grabbed them on the Tumen River border with China.
The U.S. was still hopeful about improving relations with the North, perhaps getting the North to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons, when former U.S. president Bill Clinton swooped down in a chartered jet, lunched with Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il and carried them back to California.
Gomes' case might be more analogous to that of Robert Park, the American missionary who entered the North last Christmas with a letter demanding the Dear Leader repent and free political prisoners.
Park got out after 43 days saying he'd been misled by "false propaganda" and thanking his hosts for treating him so well. Whatever North Korean interrogators did to Park to extract those statements remains a mystery, but Gomes won't be let off that easily in the wake of the Cheonan incident.
North Korea wants far more for the suffering inflicted in the Korean War. The demand for $65 trillion may be just rhetoric but it springs from a bloodbath in which as many as 4 million people died, at least half of them North Koreans. As the North Korean agency that toted up the damages explained, "Our people have the justifiable rights to receive the compensation for the blood."
The bill itemizes the demands, with $26.1 trillion sought for U.S. "atrocities", $13.7 trillion for sanctions and $16.7 trillion for property losses, a number of smaller claims makes up the difference.
Who would have imagined, when North Korean troops stormed across the 38th parallel between North and South on June 25, 1950, that we would still be hearing disturbing talk of a "second Korean War" 60 years later. Incredibly, however, the differences between North and South Korea are as bitterly pronounced now as they were all those years ago.
The danger is both much worse and far less than it was then. It's worse in the sense that North Korea now has a number of nuclear devices, has conducted two underground nuclear tests and has exchanged nuclear know-how and components with clients in the Middle East, notably Iran and Syria.
North Korea also has missiles, including a long-range model that's capable of carrying a warhead as far as Hawaii, Alaska or even the U.S. west coast. And it has been exporting short- and mid-range missiles to clients in the Middle East and elsewhere. A nuclear war in Northeast Asia appears theoretical, so much so that most people in South Korea just shrug when asked about it. The prevailing sense is, It can't happen here.
That's because, in the more immediate sense, a second Korean War on the ground, in the form of North Korean invasion, appears extremely remote. The holocaust that scorched the Korean Peninsula for more than three years remains truly the "forgotten war". It was a bloody interlude that caught the world by surprise when it broke out nearly five years after the end of World War II and then ended in 1953 in an uncertain armistice that endures, somehow, to this day.
It's often said that the Korean War ended in a stalemate in which neither side won, that the shooting stopped where it had begun, on the line drawn by distant American and Soviet officials at the 38th parallel before the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
That assessment, though, is not really true. Over the years since then South Korea has emerged as the winner by a wide margin. The South, after years of hardship, has exploded into one of the world's major economic powers with sophisticated skills and educational opportunities, markets overflowing and average incomes about 20 times higher than those of North Koreans.
While South Korea has undergone political transition from dictatorship to democracy, North Korea's ruling elite remains firmly entrenched, at least to all outward appearances. Kim Jong-Il, whose father Kim Il-Sung initiated the war and remained in power until his death in 1994, may be ailing but remains strong enough to repress the power urges of his aging generals as well as any signs of dissent by his starving people. His dream is to prepare for take-over by his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, still in his late 20s.
If North Korea is far too weak to stage an invasion, however, the North can still foment incidents that show how fragile is the peace. In the wake of the sinking of the Cheonan, the fear persists of more battles in disputed waters in the West or Yellow Sea, the scene of bloody shootouts between North and South Korean vessels in June 1999 and again in June 2002. For that matter, gunfire can always break out across the 155-mile-long demilitarized zone that has divided the peninsula since July 1953.
Although we often hear that the war stopped where it began, North Korea retains the city of Kaesong, in South Korean hands before the war, while South Korea holds territory above the 38th parallel in the center and east. Kaesong is important since it's the site of an economic complex in which 120 small South Korean manufacturers operate factories staffed by 44,000 North Koreans. The North still earns money from Kaesong even though South Korea's President Lee Myung-Bak cut off trade between South and North Korea, from which the North was netting about $200 million a year, in retaliation for the sinking of the Cheonan.
Only 28,500 American troops remain in Korea, but U.S. Navy vessels are joining South Korean vessels next month in drills that are a show of force in the Yellow Sea, and the U.S. Seventh Air Force at Osan, south of Seoul, remains a powerful deterrent. China, whose "volunteers" saved the North from complete takeover by the Americans and South Koreans in 1950 and 1951, is now a huge trading partner with both the U.S. and South Korea. The U.S.-backed South prospers in a peculiar balance in which one fact is clear: nobody wants a second Korean War.