• Who's Provoking Whom in the Koreas?

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    POHANG, SOUTH KOREA — “Just let me know if I have to worry,” read
    my mother’s email. With her son living in South Korea for close
    to fifteen years, we have been through this several times. Whenever
    North Korea is in the news, she naturally worries about my safety,
    and now that I’ve given her a lovely daughter-in-law and two beautiful
    children, her worries have quadrupled.

    Since I’ve been here, there have been raids by commandoes, missile
    launches, alleged nuclear tests, threats of a “Sea of fire,” two
    sea battles, claiming six and forty-six South Korean sailors respectively,
    and, most recently the first artillery exchange since the 1953 armistice
    that lulled the Korean War, in which four South Koreans, including,
    most disturbingly, two civilians, were killed.

    When I first got here, I, too was, spooked whenever North Korea
    was in the news, but I soon did what any resident of a foreign country
    should do; I learned from the locals. I saw that South Koreans didn’t
    care. They ignored the news coming from the North. They acted like
    the sibling of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome or severe Autism;
    while the behavior looked scary to outsiders, they were used to
    it. Those of us who’ve been “in country” a few years like to laugh
    at the “rookies” who get all jittery and start packing their bags
    whenever CNN finds it necessary to show scary pictures of menacing
    North Korean soldiers at Panmunjŏm.

    So I wrote back to my mother, “You don’t have to worry, Mom.”

    I lied.

    This time is different. This year, South Koreans are talking about
    it. The naval battle on the eve of the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup
    was ignored. (A traffic accident involving the US military at the
    same time, in which two middle school girls tragically died, was
    not ignored; there were anti-American demonstrations that
    brought hundreds of thousands to the streets, unreported by most
    mainstream media in America.) The sinking of the Ch’ŏnan
    earlier this year was not ignored, perhaps because the loss of life
    was so great. The 46 sailors were properly mourned, and, along with
    the anger directed northward, there seemed to be even more conspiracy
    analysis in the South regarding their government’s version of the
    story.

    Things are really different with last month’s shelling of
    the disputed Yŏnpyŏngdo Island, perhaps because of the
    loss of civilian life and property. My students and colleagues are
    talking about this event, bringing it up freely, voicing their concerns
    and fears.

    I, too, am a bit nervous, but I’m less nervous about what P’yŏngyang
    (and Beijing) might intentionally do than what Seoul (and Washington)
    might accidentally do.

    A day after the November 23rd Yŏnpyŏngdo attack, Justin
    Raimondo rightly noted that “the South Koreans were conducting military
    ‘exercises’ near the disputed island, which North Korea claims as
    its territory, and South Korean ships had opened fire,” going on
    to suggest that “the military exercises, code-named ‘Hoguk,’ involving
    all four branches of the South Korean armed forces and some 70,000
    troops, simulated an attack on North Korea, and were meant to provoke
    the North Koreans, who responded as might be expected” [Korean
    Conundrum: Is There a Way Out?
    ]. He continued, “US troops were
    supposed to have participated in the exercises, but apparently the
    Americans thought better of it and pulled back at the last moment
    — perhaps because they knew a provocation was in the making” [ibid].

    Mr. Raimondo went on to argue, even more pointedly, “For the South
    Koreans to conduct military exercises in this explosive region,
    never mind firing off rounds, is nothing but a naked provocation
    of the sort the West routinely ascribes to Pyongyang. In the context
    of North Korea's recent revelation that it is increasing its nuclear
    capacity, the South Korean military maneuvers were meant to elicit
    a violent response — and succeeded in doing so” [ibid].

    A few days later, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said of
    the incident, “Launching a military attack on civilians is a crime
    against humanity, even during wartime” [South
    Korean president takes responsibility for failing to protect country,
    signals hardened military stance toward North
    ]. Of course, he
    is about right attacks on civilians being crimes against humanity,
    but he said nothing of the irresponsibility of holding war games
    so close to an inhabited and disputed island.

    Speaking of President Lee, analyst Peter Lee has argued that “significant
    North Asian takeaways from the WikiLeaks cables” clearly show that
    “South Korea, under President Lee Myung-bak, wants the North to
    collapse and to dominate the reunification process” (while “North
    Korea is desperate to establish relations with the United States”)
    and that “South Korean government officials are indefatigably, crudely
    and rather transparently ‘working the refs’ — selectively packaging
    and vociferously pushing their arguments — to persuade the United
    States to abandon mediation through the People’s Republic of China
    (PRC) and/or negotiation with North Korea and instead put South
    Korea and its reunification agenda in the diplomatic driver’s seat”
    [Dear
    Leader’s designs on Uncle Sam
    ].

    Since the Yŏnpyŏngdo attack, there have been joint games
    with the United States, which sent the U.S.S. George Washington,
    against Chinese warnings (not to mention the warnings of George
    Washington against “foreign entanglements”). These were followed
    by joint war games between the United States and Japan, who has
    her own territorial dispute with Russia, leading South Korean journalist
    Yi Yong-in to warn that “a ‘three against three’ framework with
    South Korea, the United States and Japan on one side and North Korea,
    China, and Russia on the other is showing signs of taking shape
    once again” and to speak of a “New Cold War” [Cold
    War alliances reborn with regional tension
    ].

    If the danger of a “New Cold War” were not bad enough, there is
    the very real danger of a hot war, with South Korea launching its
    own live fire war games in dozens of areas around the peninsula
    and warning of responding to any North Korean reaction with air
    strikes: “The extent of possible South Korean air strikes on the
    North is not clear, but anything other than an extremely limited
    and localized action is likely to trigger total war,” warned Koreanologist
    Gregory Elich, “a war that the U.S. will inevitably be drawn into”
    [Menacing
    North Korea
    ].

    The last total war on this peninsula resulted in the deaths of
    tens of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Chinese,
    and millions of Koreans. Even a cursory glance at world history
    shows how a minor incident can escalate to a total war.

    (Of this possibility, fellow Korea resident Andray Abrahamian has
    reminded us, “If through an overly aggressive deterrence posture
    war breaks out, millions on both sides could die [and] the two generations
    of sweat and tears that drove South Korea’s economic growth could
    be undone,” rightly concluding that “it is absolutely inappropriate
    for foreign Korea-watchers to call for greater aggression in confronting
    the North” [Pyongyang
    stretches deterrence limits
    ].)

    There
    are those who would argue that with the indisputably tyrannical
    nature of North Korea, total war would be “worth it.” Perhaps the
    best argument I’ve read recently against such interventionist arguments
    comes from James Church, pseudonymous Western intelligence officer
    turned mystery novelist, in the second of his great Inspector O
    series, Hidden
    Moon
    , which he put into the mouth of his North Korean detective
    hero in a retort to a Western spy caught attempting to destabilize
    his country:

    “This isn’t about you, Inspector, it’s about something bigger.
    The future of your country. Your people’s future.”

    “You have no idea what you are talking about, do you? You’re
    just reciting some crap they handed you at a briefing. My country’s
    future? Forgive me, Superintendent, I don’t know anything that
    flourishes when it’s washed in blood. Let’s not float away on
    visions of the future… What happens here is not yours to worry
    about. It’s for us, it’s our business, our future, our fate.”

    Yes. Let the Koreans, South and North, decide their future. It’s
    not for us to worry about as it’s their business, their future,
    their fate. The last thing we Americans need is to get sucked into
    another war on this peninsula.

    December
    15, 2010

    An American
    Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send
    him mail
    ] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where
    he lectures English at a science and technology university. He blogs
    at The Western Confucian.

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