SEOUL -- With the shelling of our island in the sea of Korea, North Korean military ventures have gone beyond the stage of the terrorist acts of the past, in which they mostly had denied their complicity. Now they are openly flexing their muscles, knowing full well that this kind of behavior will make it next to impossible for the South Korean government to pursue a conciliatory policy toward the North.
The latest attack came, no less, after South Korea had just shipped rice and cement as relief aid to flood victims of North Korea -- and even after North Korea had asked for more rice and fertilizer on a larger scale.
Are we witnessing an overweening confidence resulting from North Korea's buildup of its military capability? Are its leaders finally desperate enough to resort to strong-arm tactics as the only way out of their economic straitjacket? Do they feel unconstrained in their adventurist course because they are confident that China will always be on their side whatever they may do?
All of these may well explain the latest incident.
However, what concerns me above all are the internal dynamics of the North Korean regime that have led to this worsening state of affairs, namely, the "military first" politics it has upheld for so long.
I count myself among those who, while understanding North Korea's dire difficulties, have been alarmed at the increasing pace of its militaristic turn. Privately, even some advocates of the "sunshine policy" initiated by former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung as a way to get North Korea to moderate and open up also share this concern.
Military virtues have become the dominant values of the society. Military language has taken over political life completely. Any undertaking, whether constructing a building or bringing in the harvest, is addressed in a military manner as if it were a campaign in battle. Leaders are invariably "generals," although never having served visibly in the military. History reminds us that militarism of this sort that displaces civil society and dominates politics inside a country usually ends up displacing diplomacy with military adventures in dealing with the outside world.
Am I going too far in thinking of Imperial Japan in the lead-up to the bombing Pearl Harbor, that foolhardy venture in which the military leaders convinced themselves of their own supremacy after the country had poured so much of its resources into building up its arms, particularly its navy? Because the military had excessive influence in the Japanese government, the logical way out of the straitjacket of sanctions imposed by America appeared to be a foolhardy military challenge.
I worry that the overweening political influence of the military establishment, combined with North Korea's dire economic problems, may make it difficult even for Kim Jong Il and his family to control the internal dynamics of the regime. Arnold Toynbee used to call this kind of phenomenon the "intractability of institutions." Under certain circumstances, governments and people tread down the slippery road to catastrophe in full knowledge of the certain results.
The North Korean leadership cannot wriggle itself out of its present dilemma because of its fateful rivalry with South Korea. Even the very reality of South Korea itself is a threat to its existence, as a well-known scholar and a leading advocate of the "sunshine policy" recently remarked.
Here is the danger to everyone in the region, not only to South Korea: that the North Korean regime has nothing left in its arsenal for survival but its weapons, leading it to resort to unreasonable acts of violence or the threat of violence.
To be sure, South Korean governments have not always been right and sensible in dealing with North Korea in the past. But they have tried in their own ways to address the problems of the country, to engage its leaders in talks, to help the people with basic necessities and to build a regime of stability on the peninsula -- all without much success.
China bears a special weight in dealing with the North Korean problem. It is unfortunate that, in the view of most Koreans, China's leaders tend to still look at North Korea as a strategic asset in the context of its relations with America. Its intervention in the Korean War is still important not because of North Korea itself but because of China's relative success in confronting America on the battlefield.
I myself do not entirely share this impression. But I believe that China should pay more attention to the internal problems of North Korea, especially the militarization of its society, because the domestic dynamics of any country are inevitably linked to its external behavior. One cannot just ignore what is going on inside a country with the excuse of "non-intervention in others affairs," particularly if that country is going through an exceptionally critical phase.
In this context, North Korea's actions are not only a challenge to our security in the region, but also to our insecurity. The artillery attack on South Korea has brought front and center the issue that is increasingly on everyone's mind: the respective roles of the U.S. and China in our regional security as power shifts eastward.
Not long ago, against the background of the sinking of the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan Ham, and then the clash over an island between China and Japan, I was interviewed by Chinese television. "Why should America, an external power, intervene in the affairs of this region?" my questioner asked. "Why do they still maintain such a military presence on the Korean peninsula?"
I gently reminded her that America came to be involved in this region as a result of the Pacific War, which it entered after being attacked by Japan, and has maintained its presence ever since. As for its military presence in Korea, America had withdrawn from the peninsula but had to return when war broke out less than a year after its withdrawal.
As East Asians, we may have objections to foreign military presence on our lands. But it is an undeniable fact that there has not been a major military conflict on the peninsula or in other parts of the region for more than a half a century since the Korean War. Without doubt, dating back to the time of the Japanese invasion of its neighbors, America has become a stabilizing factor in the region mainly because we have not been able to manage our own affairs.
In the current crisis, we cannot simply sit back and say that the North Korean problem is ultimately only resolvable by America and North Korea, while arguing at the same time for less of an American presence in the region.
If we want to be on our own and would like to see less of an American influence around us, as the Chinese in particular claim they want, then the countries of the East Asian region must be able to address our problems to a greater extent by ourselves.
The successive crises provoked by North Korea, each more dangerous than the last, may well bring that imperative closer to reality.
© GLOBAL VIEWPOINT NETWORK/TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES