Korea rift best left to regional players to solve

Freedom New Mexico

Recent developments on the Korean peninsula have thrust the United States into yet another mini-crisis about which our country can do little but complain, in part because none of the realistic available options is remotely attractive.

The frustrations Americans, from policymakers to citizens, are feeling should be a reminder, when things settle down, that extricating this country from anachronistic commitments should become a priority.

A divided Korea dates from the post-World War II period. The U.S. fought a war to maintain South Korea’s independence from 1950 to 1953, the result of which was an uneasy truce that left two hostile countries glaring at one another across a fortified border. As the South embraced a modified version of capitalism while the North clung to an insular form of communism, the gross domestic product of the South grew to be about 20 times greater than that of the North. Although the South is fully capable of defending itself now, some 26,000 U.S. troops, a remnant of a Cold War that ended some 20 years ago, are stationed in South Korea. That ensures the U.S. will be involved in any local or regional drama.

The latest incident involves military exercises by South Korea to which the North responded by shelling the South Korean-inhabited island of Yeongpyeongdo with artillery, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians and wounding perhaps 20 others. This followed an invitation to a U.S. scientist by the North to view a surprisingly sophisticated and extensive uranium enrichment plant, suggesting North Korea is working to add to its nuclear arsenal. In the mental background is the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, in March. The South blames a torpedo from the North, which the North denies.

Beyond a history of provocative actions to get attention, there are several possible reasons the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea might launch an attack besides retaliation for the South’s military exercises. The regime is in the midst of a succession situation that while perhaps not a full-blown crisis is at the least clumsy. “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, reputed to be ailing, has announced he wants his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, about 26, whom he just made a four-star general, to assume his absolute power.

A military provocation could be intended as a sign that the younger Kim is tough and nasty, or a sign that the military will be the real power after succession. Others interpret the incident as a way to draw attention to near-famine conditions in North Korea with the hope of getting international aid. Some say the North wants to resume six-power talks on its nuclear status that were suspended two years ago.

It is unlikely North Korea really wants to provoke a war which, given the South’s advantages, would likely lead to the destruction of its regime. Since the South Korean capital city of Seoul is within range of thousands of North Korean artillery batteries, however, a war could also lead to immense death and suffering in the South.

So both sides have incentives to avoid outright war. China, which has assumed the role of patron to the North despite some misgivings, is best positioned to keep the North reined in, and U.S. diplomacy should focus on persuading China to act constructively.