North Korea chang­ing the game in East Asia

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

The po­lit­i­cal frame­work that has kept Korea’s smol­der­ing 60year-old war from fa­tally reignit­ing is chang­ing and chang­ing rapidly. Ja­pan is pub­licly al­ter­ing its po­lit­i­cal ap­proach to North Korea and China. Last week, Ja­pan in­di­cated it plans to more fully in­te­grate its mil­i­tary forces with those of the U.S. as well as de­ploy mo­bile forces ca­pa­ble of re­act­ing to threats to its south­ern is­lands. That sends a hard mes­sage to China. These mo­bile forces could also be em­ployed against North Korea.

The most pro­found change in pub­lic at­ti­tude, diplo­matic stance and mil­i­tary pos­ture, how­ever, is oc­cur­ring in South Korea. How these changes will af­fect re­gional sta­bil­ity is the sub­ject of in­tense spec­u­la­tion.

North Korea’s cy­cle of wicked be­hav­ior has not changed. Re­cently, North Korea threat­ened to launch a nu­clear war. Dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-Il’s regime has a script. It is­sues threats, which are of­ten aug­mented by ac­tual attacks. The threats are fol­lowed by of­fers to ne­go­ti­ate and de­mands for aid.

This ex­tor­tion racket is based on the premise that the de­struc­tive con­se­quences of all-out war in one of the world’s most eco­nom­i­cally pro­duc­tive re­gions, East Asia, are so great Kim’s neigh­bors won’t risk it. South Korea’s cap­i­tal, Seoul, lies within range of North Korean rocket ar­tillery. Even if a North-South war re­mained con- ven­tional (i.e., no nu­clear weapons), Seoul would suf­fer sig­nif­i­cant dam­age. Kim bets South Korea, Ja­pan and the U.S. will send the im­pov­er­ished North food aid and other eco­nomic good­ies. His regime also gam­bles that China will prop it up and un­der­mine po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sanc­tions South Korea and its al­lies may at­tempt to im­pose.

The bet has paid off, for the most part.

South Korea, how­ever, ap­pears to have had it (fi­nally) with Kim’s racket. Two deadly attacks per­pe­trated by North Korea this year, the sink­ing of a South Korean naval ves­sel in March and the shelling of a South Korean is­land in Novem­ber, have deeply an­gered the South Korean peo­ple. These in­ci­dents have ac­cel­er­ated a shift in the South Korean pub­lic’s at­ti­tude.

Change was al­ready in the wind in 2008 as South Korea be­gan to cur­tail its Sun­shine Pol­icy. Crafted by left-lean­ing “peace” politi­cians in 1998, the pol­icy of­fered the North eco­nomic in­cen­tives to end its nu­clear weapons quest by demon­strat­ing the South’s con­struc­tive in­ten­tions. North Korea, how­ever, saw the pol­icy as an in­di­ca­tion that thug­gery paid. More­over, it seemed that younger South Kore­ans be- lieved the pro­pa­ganda line that Amer­ica was the root of all global evil and that Washington had caused the Korean War.

The dic­ta­tor­ship, how­ever, over­played its hand when it tested a nuke in 2006. That det­o­na­tion killed the Sun­shine Pol­icy, though it took a na­tional elec­tion to con­firm it. Last month, South Korea’s Uni­fi­ca­tion Min­istry of­fi­cially de­clared the Sun­shine Pol­icy a fail­ure.

Kim’s regime gam­bles that China will prop it up and un­der­mine po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sanc­tions South Korea and its al­lies may at­tempt to im­pose. The bet has paid off, for the most part.

With this year’s attacks as bit­ter ev­i­dence, coax­ing the North is out and coun­ter­ing it is in­creas­ingly fa­vored. South Korea is dis­cussing mil­i­tary reprisals against the North’s nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties. The 2010 attacks may have closed the gap be­tween older South Kore­ans pre­pared to con­front the North and the younger gen­er­a­tion who un­til re­cently be­lieved peace could be bought like an iPod.

Last week, South Korean Pres­i­dent Lee Myung-bak out­lined a plan for Korean re­uni­fi­ca­tion with Seoul in charge. A govern­ment spokesman said Lee’s plan re­flects long-term trends and is not pred­i­cated on a near-term col­lapse of the Kim regime.

The North sees the plan as po­lit­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare. It is in­deed such war­fare, but based on po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­al­ity, not lies and bom­bast, for it em­pha­sizes the South’s im­mense strength and the North’s weak­ness. It also en­cour­ages fac­tions in North Korea’s govern­ment and mil­i­tary that may op­pose Kim JongIl and his likely suc­ces­sor, his son, Kim Jong-Un. South Korea is say­ing it is the fu­ture, the Kim regime the past, so make your choice.

To make that gam­bit work, South Korea will have to stick to its guns, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively. How the North will re­spond to a de­ter­mined South re­mains un­known, but for the next 12 to 24 months, the sit­u­a­tion in East Asia will be par­tic­u­larly pre­car­i­ous.

Austin Bay is a na­tion­ally syndi­cated colum­nist.

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