SINOGRAPH Tough love for an unstable neighbor
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - As with the traditional cry of ''wolf, wolf!", threats of war between
North and South Korea have been heard many times in the 57 years since the end
of the conflict on the peninsula. They sound so often that even the current
situation could be considered a false alarm, especially since China stepped in
and apparently managed to rein in restless Pyongyang.
But the crisis in the North is in fact deeper today than perhaps ever before in
its history - and leads one to think that this time things could be different.
Pyongyang, feeling its back to the wall
and having nothing to lose, might want to tempt fate, betting that Seoul is too
afraid of the collapse of North Korea to not give Pyongyang credibility and
send money its way.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il still indicated that he will not attack unless
attacked in the May 25 announcement that his army was ready for the possibility
of going to war. But this new round of threats raised the level of controversy,
especially after Seoul on May 24 declared it would suspend trade with Pyongyang
in retaliation for the South's navy warship the Cheonan likely being
torpedoed by the North's submarine in March.
In riposte to Seoul's May 25 announcement that it would resume broadcasting
slogans against the North - as in the days of the Cold War - through megaphones
installed along the ceasefire line at the 38th parallel, the North threatened
to shoot loudspeakers if the messages resume.
From Beijing, where a conference was taking place about strategic cooperation
between China and the United States, Chinese foreign policy chief and state
councilor Dai Bingguo said he wants stability in the Korean peninsula.
China, the only country with some leverage over the North - and its former ally
during the 1950-53 war, in theory is in a position to try to rein in Pyongyang.
Dai's statement should therefore provide some kind of clarity on the overall
situation in the peninsula.
In reality, the task for Beijing is extremely difficult. Seoul, which had its
warship attacked, can't appear to cave in and be cowardly in the face of
provocation by Pyongyang. President Lee Myung-bak, elected on a platform of
standing up to the North, might otherwise lose popular support.
Pyongyang, on the other hand, is now even weaker and has less room to maneuver
domestically and internationally. Kim is sick and does not seem in control of
the situation - in December, he launched economic reforms that have left the
His son Kim Jong-oon, just 26 or 27 years old, is inexperienced and perhaps
does not even have the full support of the military leaders who sheltered his
father in the passage of power from grandfather Kim Il-sung.
In these conditions, a retreat by the North could possibly jeopardize the
mysterious political balance in Pyongyang. This, in turn, could trigger a
political crisis that could lead to the disintegration of North Korea.
Then the world would have to cope with one more failed state - this one sitting
between two of the three largest economies in the world (Japan and China) - and
with 22 million North Korean people starving and possibly unable to deal with a
market economy. None of its neighbors would want to confront such a burden.
This threat, far more than the possibility of an attack by the North has
countries near and far scared.
Besides this, there is the threat of a bombing attack on Seoul, just a few
kilometers from the border. The North has about 8,000 guns pointed at the
South, so an attack - even if soon repelled - would still cause thousands of
deaths in Seoul, a sprawling city of 8 million people just a few kilometers
from the border.
On the other hand, this could only be a charade, a play staged by Pyongyang as
a kind of strategic blackmail to the world: "Give me money, and do not offend
me - or else I bombard you, or I will fail."
Already the bombardment of words knocked billions of dollars off the value of
Asian stock markets earlier this week, making one wonder whether it would be
cheaper to pay off the Northern gangsters or to let them crash the market by
firing a few shots and threats now and then.
This proves that North Korea is dangerous for global stability in ways aside
from its nuclear program, whose dismantlement should be discussed in the
six-party talks. Even if Pyongyang were to give up its bombs and missiles, it
would still be able to threaten all its neighbors. Therefore, North Korean
denuclearization is not a solution.
Yet, one can think in the opposite direction: if Pyongyang doesn't need bombs
to scare everybody and can protect itself without them, it would need foreign
cooperation to get out of the present economic and political crisis. One way of
buying some trust, without giving up its security, could then be for the North
to return to the Six Party talks and give up all its unnecessary nuclear
programs. If that were to happen, the present crisis could magically turn into
a breakthrough for the political and economic welfare of the region.