Hotlines and Retaliation In Korea

Our attention is understandably focused on domestic issues this week, but how are things going in the rest of the world?  Well, things are still a bit tense over in Korea.

On the bright side, North and South Korea have reopened their “hotline” for the first time since the North torpedoed the South Korean warship Cheonan eight months ago.  There was a lot of static on that line when North Korean artillery shells were falling on Yeonpyeong Island, but it looks like the reception has cleared up.  I’ve always envisioned the “hotline” as a bored South Korean officer with a soup can pressed to his ear, listening to a communist scream at him from the other end of a 50-mile wire.

North Korea made a few other overtures to the South, including the reopening of a joint industrial park, and an offer to reopen the Diamond Mountain tourist resort.  Do you hate your morning commute?  Imagine how the guys who have to drive into North Korea for work must feel.  I can’t imagine how travel agents sell getaways to Diamond Mountain, no matter how beautiful it is.

On the down side, Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he thinks the risk of war is actually “rising,” and confirmed the United States will stand beside South Korea if they are forced to retaliate after an attack.  Japan says it’s got their back, too.  The Associated Press reports they’ve been meeting with the South Koreans to share intelligence and pledge logistical support in the event of a military action.  This is a major advance in the spirit of cooperation between two nations who share common strategic objectives, but have a strained history.  Korea’s memory of its previous encounter with the armed forces of Japan is not a happy one.

Why are things so tense?  After all, North Korea didn’t follow through on all those blood-curdling threats they were making when the South held joint military exercises with the U.S., back in December.  The communist government spent Christmas talking about “holy war” with nuclear weapons, but Santa reported no mushroom clouds when he passed through Korean airspace.

The problem is that knowledgeable observers didn’t expect them to carry out those threats immediately.  It would have been suicidal.  Sucker punches don’t work if they come with formal announcements.

North Korea’s New Year resolution was evidently to cross its arms and glare at everyone in sullen silence, which is not encouraging after a season of murder and belligerence.  Secretary Gates wants “concrete evidence for the North that they are finally serious” about arms-control negotiations.

There are also political pressures in South Korea to contend with.  The populace is still furious about the Yeonpyeong attack, and wants the North to pay for the offense.  The South had been planning to send food aid to North Korea after a series of devastating floods, but public outrage over the North’s murderous actions scuttled the deal.

North Korea has a propensity for “negotiating” with random acts of unprovoked violence, delivered to unsuspecting targets.  They’re gaining the capability to send those murder-grams with intercontinental range.  They haven’t done anything to accept responsibility for their previous actions.  Our diplomatic strategy consists of begging China to do something about them.  That’s why things are still tense on the Korean peninsula.