From 'Korean War II' to same old same old

Wednesday, January 5, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL Call it another non-war between the two Koreas. First came the "incidents", then the recriminations and threats, the claims, counter-claims, the boasts, military exercises, then what?

Now North Korea is talking about "defusing tensions" on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea's major media outlet, in a New Year's editorial, said "confrontation must end" and warned what might otherwise happen "a nuclear holocaust." Considering the North's standing as a nascent nuclear power, that's a threat that no one can ignore. The North also called for South Korea to stop staging military exercises and aligning with "U.S. war hawks."

Is North Korea's message soft-line or another instance of what to expect in a fight-talk strategy after months of rising confrontation? For a brief moment after the shelling in November of an island in the Yellow Sea, in which four South Koreans died, one might have thought the two Koreas were on the verge of Korean War II. With both sides promising to destroy the other in case of another attack, who would doubt the crisis was anything but critical?

Whatever one reads into North Korea's New Year's message, it was enough to lead U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth to pack his bags for another mission to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo this week, all to see if there's any way to get all three of them lined up on the path to talking, not fighting.

Bosworth was last in Seoul in November, before the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, 80 kilometers west of the major South Korean port of Incheon but only 11 kilometers south of the North Korean coast. The reason for that mission was the North Korean display, to a team of Americans led by Stanford University physicist Siegfried Hecker, of its new facility for fabricating warheads with highly enriched uranium at their core.

If headlines and broadcast bulletins are an index of relative seriousness, the attack on the island was an affront of far greater proportions than either the nuclear revelation or indeed the sinking of the South Korea navy corvette the Cheonan off another island in the Yellow Sea in March, in which 46 sailors died.

After all that, the bombardment of hapless Yeonpyeong Island seemed to mark the point of no return. Here was an assault on South Korean soil, the first, it was said, since the signing of the truce that ended the first Korean War in July 1953. It was one thing for North Korean gunners to fire on a military target but another to strike a civilian village of about 1,700 people as they went about their daily lives of fishing and farming.

Would life ever be the same now that two civilians had been killed, along with two marines, and rows of shops and homes turned to rubble? To the great disappointment of the journalistic hordes who arrived in South Korea post-Yeonpyeong, in search of a different kind of war after overdosing on Afghanistan and Iraq, the answer was a resounding no. There was no war here. The incident was just that, an incident.

Nor was it accurate to describe it as the first assault on South Korean territory since the Korean War. North Korean special forces staged numerous assaults across the 256-kilometer-long demilitarized zone established in the 1953 truce killing scores of American and South Korean troops and occasional civilians, in the first decade or two after the Korean War.

So serious were these raids across the de-militarized zone (DMZ) that some scholars categorize them as the Second Korean War. But where does that leave the current confrontation if not a peninsula on the brink of war, then what?

In South Korea, in the U.S., at the United Nations, the pressure is now on to revert to business as usual. South Korea's opposition Democratic Party perpetuating the legacy of a decade of liberal rule before the election of the conservative Lee Myung-Bak in December 2007 is denouncing war games ordered by Lee since the Yeonpyeong bombardment as a "provocation".

In Korea before New Year's, the biggest story with any relevance to Incheon was not the fate of the island's former inhabitants, trickling hesitantly back to their former homes, but the opening of a rail link from Seoul Station all the way to Incheon International Airport. This enables passengers, if they opt for the express, to get there in slightly more than 30 minutes as opposed to 60 to 90 minutes by bus.

In the end-of-year hoopla, Lee's plea for "quick and bold" reform of a military establishment of huge but untested proportions receded to old news, obligatory headlines in the "big three" conservative national newspapers, glanced at but little noted. Most everyone had read/seen/heard all that before.

Actually, Lee got bigger headlines by proclaiming a day or two later that he wouldn't mind returning to six-party talks, as China and North Korea have been suggesting.

"The door for dialogue is still open," said Lee in his New Year's address, but he added the usual disclaimers: Nuclear weapons and military adventurism must be discarded," and the North "must work toward peace and cooperation not only with rhetoric but also with deeds".

The message quickly took on an aura of same old, same old, as Lee reminded the North of the rewards, dangling the same bait of multi-billion dollars in aid that the North has loudly sneered at.

Like Lee, the new Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin made equally sensational vows of retribution against the North Koreans if they strike again but then had to worry about negotiations with the U.S. and China.

Kim's tough talk reached a crescendo before and during a brief South Korean artillery exercise on December 20 off the same Yeonpyeong island from which South Korean marines were lobbing artillery rounds when North Korean gunners opened fire on them on November 23.

If North Korea's vow of vengeance "twice or thrice" the severity of its previous attack seemed extreme, however, the operative word in the diatribe was "unpredictable". As South Korean F-15s zoomed overhead, ready to pound land targets inside North Korea for the first time since the Korean War, the word from the North was that the exercise was not worth the effort of retaliation.

Anyway, said the North Korean statement, the South Korean gunners had adjusted their targets and were not firing into North Korean waters. The issue here remained the Northern Limit Line below which North Korean vessels are banned. North Korea's challenge to the line, the reason for bloody battles in the Yellow Sea in recent years, is sure to go on but not when South Koreans are primed for war.

Rather, North Korea focused on convincing outgoing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, in Pyongyang for five days at the height of the non-crisis, of the need to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons.

Richardson, with a CNN team led by Wolf Blitzer and a New York Times correspondent in tow, helpfully passed the word that North Korea would welcome inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to check out its newly constructed 20-megawatt uranium enrichment reactor just to prove its purpose is to produce energy, not more nuclear devices.

The North Koreans could be sure Richardson, on his fourth visit to Pyongyang, would deliver the message they wanted. The betting still is the North will be ready to conduct its third underground nuclear test in the spring, this one an explosive of enriched uranium rather than the plutonium made at the old five-megawatt reactor at the same site.

In the midst of such talk, ongoing South Korean naval exercises are barely noticed. Defense minister Kim now has to focus on negotiations.

United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates touches down here Jan. 14 on a swing that will take him to Tokyo and Beijing, and Kim will then be going on to Beijing in February to meet China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie. If they agree on nothing else, it's going to be on the need for "stability" that China wants for the Korean Peninsula while supporting its North Korean ally with food and fuel and conducting annual two-way trade of $140 billion with the South.

Meanwhile, Korean War II will have to wait. Nobody is much worried. It's as though people have more important things to think about. The South Korean economy is booming, with gross domestic product this year expected to expand by the usual minimum of 4 percent.

In that spirit, Hyundai Motors, led by founder's son Chung Mong-Koo, has forecast a 10 percent increase in sales this year. Over at Samsung, founder's son Lee Kun-Hee, in a New Year's message, predicted "the coming decade will reveal the challenges that will determine our future over the next 100 years." Amid such pronouncements, the non-war was definitely a non-issue.

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