Now if only the worst actor of all, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il, would follow his example. Repeatedly the neo-cons held up the Libyan example as a model for North Korea in all those rounds of six-party talks that culminated in elaborate agreements in 2007 for the North to abandon its nukes. North Korea had no intention of doing anything of the sort, but U.S. negotiators, and South Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak, never tired of reminding North Korea of all the riches they would share in the form of direly-needed aid if only the North would live up to its word.
The Libyan model endures to this day — and suddenly North Korea is eager to cite it as proof positive of the wisdom of it nuclear program. Only the North Koreans have reversed the message. No way, they are saying, would the U.S. and others have dared to attack Gadhafi’s forces if he had had the nuclear deterrent needed to strike back. And no way, by inference, can North Korea afford to compromise its own nuclear program knowing the Americans will then strike — even if the U.S. goes so far as to form diplomatic relations with the North.
North Korea, otherwise altogether silent on uprisings that might be worthy of emulation by the North’s own starving citizens, found plenty to report about “the Libyan crisis” for “teaching the international community a grave lesson.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman, quoted by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, said the bombing “confirmed once again … the truth that one should have power to defend peace.”
North Korea discerned that convenient truth at a significant juncture in its own relationship with the U.S. and South Korea. It was just one year ago, on March 26, that the South Korean Navy corvette the Cheonan was split in two and sunk in the Yellow Sea with a loss of the lives of 46 sailors. South Koreans memorialized the sinking on the weekend with services at the national cemetery in Daejeon, a major city south of Seoul, and on Bangnyeong, the South Korean island within a few kilometers of the rocky southwestern-most promontory of North Korea, near which the Cheonan went down.
South Korea’s top admiral, dedicating a monument to the sailors on the island, promised to retaliate against future North Korean attacks, and South Korean warships staged exercises in the Yellow Sea in a show of force that dramatized the risks of more incidents.
President Lee, demanding an apology from North Korea for the Cheonan incident and the shelling of nearby Yeonpyeong Island in November, in which four people were killed, still has not lived down the failure of South Korean forces to retaliate decisively on either occasion.
One year after it happened, South Koreans are still frustrated by the debate on whether North Korea was actually responsible for sinking the Cheonan.
Doubts about who did it have largely died down in the South in the face of overwhelming, minutely documented investigation of the wreckage, as made public, that shows the vessel could only have been sunk by a torpedo fired by a North Korean midget submarine. North Korea, however goes on denying all the evidence as “fabrication” while opposition South Korean politicians still find reason to question the circumstances if not the actual details of the investigation.
Thus, it was that Park Jie-Won, once the right-hand man of the late Kim Dae-Jung, who initiated the “Sunshine” policy of reconciliation with the North during his five years as president from 1998 to 2003, called on the government to “resolve suspicions” about what really happened. The inference was not that North Korea had not sunk the Cheonan, but that perhaps the South Korean side had incited the attack by its own maneuvers in those disputed waters.
Lee somewhat querulously has been blaming his critics for dividing South Koreans when they need to unite in confrontation against “the enemy.” At a meeting of Blue House secretaries, he was quoted as saying it was “heart-wrenching” when “a year ago our public opinion was divided in front of the enemy, which is an assailant.” Although lately few of Lee’s critics are denying North Korea’s role, Lee found it “more sad that among those who distorted facts at that time in support of North Korea’s claim, no one has boldly confessed wrongdoing.”
If plot theories about America deliberately sinking the Cheonan to galvanize Japanese support for the need for U.S. forces to stay on Okinawa have died down, criticism of the Lee government is an enduring phenomenon. It’s an open question just how he would respond, or how much support he would get, if North Korea perpetrated another “incident.”
We might get an answer, for instance, if the North made good on threats to retaliate against launching of balloons bearing nasty messages about the “Kim dynasty” or simply news reports of protests in the Middle East. Or North Korea could decide to stage an incident around the time of the 99th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong-Il’s father, the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, born on April 16, 1912.
North Korea would have no problem, though, about messages publicizing the attacks on Libya, which the North has been denouncing regularly. Suspicions that the Americans are plotting to attack North Korea have been at the essence of North Korean propaganda since the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953.
Gadhafi’s acquiescence to demands to end his own program for developing nuclear weapons, and the price the North Koreans say he is now paying, fortify what are widely suspected to be their plans for a third underground nuclear test. This time they’re likely to want to try out a warhead spun off their new 20-megawatt enriched uranium reactor — more powerful probably than the plutonium tests they conducted in October 2006 and then in May 2009.
If South Korea still seems divided and puzzled about what to do in the event of another Cheonan or Yeonpyeong-type episode, no one has any idea what to do if North Korea tests another nuke — or a long-range missile capable of carrying it to a distant target. North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations may agree on the need to snuff out Gadhafiism, but there’s no agreement at all on what to do about North Korea’s nuclear program.
No one is suggesting bombing North Korea’s nuclear complex at Yongbyon, and no one wants to contemplate a war that would surely involve China as the North’s powerful ally. Nor, for that matter, is there really much interest, beneath the level of rhetoric and war games, in stirring up a conflict by retaliating for some isolated incident.
North Korea may be right: its nuclear program does provide a solid deterrent against any notion of doing anything — even if North Korea isn’t actually going to explode one of those things for real.