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Bernard Rowan Headshot

Oh, My Korea

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It is disturbing to read about the continued tensions between North and South Korea. Tens of millions of people live near the DMZ. The center of South Korea, Seoul, is within range of North Korean artillery and military assets. The North would surely face overwhelming destruction should any full-scale engagement occur. At present, a dangerous cycle of stupid provocations by the North and placations by the South has entered a new phase. The Lee administration and South Korea, backed by the United States, have signaled that further provocations will be met with a direct and unmistakable response. The North speaks of a "sacred war," and recent reports indicate that it has further fortified its military border.

What is going on, one might ask? The transition in leadership to Kim Jong-un, likely a weak choice and a vulnerable one after Kim Jong-il dies, might prompt adventurism on the part of the North. The North is a past master in the game of brinksmanship-for-concessions, an irrational long-term strategy, but one that its economically marginalized and ideologically hyperbolized state and elite seem to depend upon more and more. The leadership in the South is making continued strides among the alpha class of nations, recently hosting the G-20 summit and working toward greater autonomy in military control with its American partner. This juxtaposition cannot but embarrass the few who do not have their minds brainwashed in the North.

China has an especial role in remonstrating with Pyongyang. It appears to have activated this potential, somewhat late and to the disappointment of the national community. Nonetheless, the South's live fire drill a few weeks ago did not result in a North Korean response. This summer saw China conduct its own military drills and engage in a series of diplomatic wrangles over disputed territories with Japan and Taiwan may have contributed to emboldening Pyongyang. China's giving cover to North Korean adventurism through blocking and distancing itself from U.N. condemnations is not in keeping with the promises of peaceful regional and international leadership. We should all be calling on China to do more.

The situation is nothing if not serious. Where we are headed at present, and perhaps that is where we must head, is a world where Korea will become the next nuclear frontier. Anyone who has not learned from watching a host of historical examples, of which Iran and North Korea are only the latest examples, that any nation with sufficient resources and resolve will develop nuclear energy and nuclear weapons with or without international approval is stupid, full stop. The irrationality of nuclear powers thinking that they can forestall other nations from having the same power potentials, in particular if the nations are rising or declining powers, goes against the social science of the last century.

The current situation begins to remind me of the MAD era of bygone Soviet-American days -- even though the world still exists under mutually-assured destruction, and the Obama administration has just concluded a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia. I mean, what is going to come of all of this? Does anyone really think that the North, paranoid and destitute as it might be, would go to war with the South? They could cause a lot of damage, and they themselves would be destroyed. There is no first-strike plan or intention on the part of the South or the United States. No one is planning to "take over" North Korea. The spectacle of a backwater state and nation, proudly propping up its weapons and military whilst languishing in pre-modern conditions and deifying its national leaders so as to maintain a totalitarian society is not just a joke. It's eerily familiar. And that's the point.

One grows weary of posturing by American leaders at the borders, at rostrums of regional meetings, at press conferences, and amongst friends. One equally grows tired of seeing special envoys trotted out and over to do the takeaways for momentary satisfaction. Of course, they should go, but such triage efforts only prop up the status quo. All the United States will accomplish is to institute what it claims to have transcended, a MAD world, in the Asian theater. All of our ability and power cannot undo the rot that the end of the Korean War froze in space and time. All of power will not prevent China from growing more powerful, and its ally retaining geostrategic protection. As we continue to live on and rely on a divided Korea, it will grow to cost the world in time, money, and danger of mass destruction. And just as Americans looked on while South Koreans fought to develop their democracy in the 1980s, as a kind of games-and-spectacle looking glass, we can pat ourselves on the back for being the new Rome again in this instance. That is unless we start to do things differently.

We are heading slowly to a time when North and South, plus all comers, will have to nuclearize and militarize further the DMZ, their nations, and the region. The game of build to deter will see a new instantiation. And in the end, the North will be disrupted, either out of its poverty or mendacity, but not without decades of wasted expense, wasted instability, and all that goes with it.

What is needed is a mature use of the technologies of peace. All interested parties should work to open up economic relations with Korea, so as to create economic markets that require the maintenance of peace. The game of isolating nations doesn't really work to create peace. In time, American and South Korean leaders need to start their versions of nuclear arms negotiations. Many more people in the world need to study the occult society that is North Korea. It can become the next area studies program for the 21st century.

The dream of unification is being set back by decades with each grain of sand that drains out of the hourglass these days. Not to be cynical about it, but perhaps there is no other way. We're heading to a new Cold War, if things remain the same. But I still see a day when the two Koreas will be one. It will occur without further warfare, and it will occur on democratic terms, but it won't occur on anyone's timetable in particular. And it won't occur if the emphasis of the world's "mature powers" amounts to mutual conduct of military exercises as the major events for regional relations each year. Here's hoping 2011 sees major efforts by all nations concerned to bring the two Koreas to the path of peace.