“Walking the Tightrope with North Korea” Dec. 2, 2010

WAMC Northeast Public Radio Dec. 2, 2010
Audio for “Walking the Tightrope with North Korea”

Walking a tightrope under any circumstances is difficult. But trying to do so with North Korea these days has become an increasingly dangerous blood sport. Sure, last week’s North Korean bombing of an South Korean island that finds itself uncomfortably close to their heavily armed border, coupled with the North’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel just this last spring were not exactly unusual events.

In fact for someone like myself who writes a book on developments in East & South East Asia which is published every august. (East And South East Asia 2010 Stryker Post) Those acts of North Korean aggression mostly created a sense of déjà vu.

After all, for years, North Korea has gone out of its way to provoke its southern neighbor: to provoke them when times have been tense and amazingly, provoking them even in the middle of periods when everything seemed to be moving toward reconciliation. As during those Nobel peace prizing winning glory years when Former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung’s “sunshine policy” was winning complementary support from the American Clinton administration.

Yes, years when an extraordinary more flexible and creative policy toward Pyongyang was emanating from both the American and South Korean governments. A hopeful time when even the New York Philharmonic showed up to perform in North Korea. And yet even then North Korea continued to provoke the south even as it occasionally reached out.

Then of course came the second Bush administration which spent most of its years in office displaying such a vehement level of antagonism that it merely gave North Korea the cover it needed to develop more nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them or did until even George W. tried his own olive branch after the 2006 American elections.

Which, I might add hardly stopped the North from continuing advance toward nuclear weapons and its regular saber rattling. But despite those provocations no real confrontation on the explosive Korean peninsula ever happened.

There was no violent confrontation while Bill Clinton was trying to improve relations. Or alternatively, no confrontation under the more bellicose George W. Bush who had too many other problems in Iraq and Afghanistan to confront the nation he so casually categorized as a core part of his “Axis of Evil”

Clearly this is at recurring cycle that could lull casual observers into a false sense of calm. But that would be poorly advised. Because today provocations may be familiar but the situation seems far more dangerous.

Dangerous because it is happening now as an always precarious leadership transition in the North from Kim Jung Ill to his son is taking place. Even as the South newly elected South Korean conservatives, themselves never fans of the effort to reconcile with the north, a policy of their political rivals not theirs lead a Korean population that has in large measure lost hope that the fruits of an improved relationship with their erratic northern neighbors are even obtainable.

Both developments that create a situation that makes it less and less unlikely that they will continue to ignore North Korea’ s constant provocations. While the Obama administration has its own reasons to be doubtful that offering a more creative policy than the Bush administrations vacillating antagonism is worth the paper it’s written on.

Thus making it all the more likely that we really may soon fall off that tightrope we have walked for years with North Korea and fall into that abyss of a full scale conflict that could destroy tens of thousands of lives on both sides

About Steven Leibo

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