SEOUL - Korea remains the forgotten war. Just ask United States President
Barack Obama. "For us," he declaimed at his inaugural, Americans "fought and
died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh".
Korea? The Chosun Reservoir, from which US Marines retreated in bloody defeat
in "the coldest winter" of 1950-1951? The Pusan perimeter, which Americans
defended against repeated North Korean assaults in the summer of 1950 before
driving the invaders out of the south after the Inchon landing? Heartbreak
Ridge and Pork Chop Hill - two of the hardest-fought battlegrounds of the
Korean War? Forget it.
Clearly, Obama's policy-making and speech-writing crew made a calculated
decision. One can imagine the thoughts coursing
through the collective brains of the incoming doyens of the White House and
National Security Council and their aides and advisers from the think-tanks:
don't touch that one - might upset North Korea. Kim Jong-il might see a mention
as advance build-up for a pre-emptive strike. Nah, North Korea's too sensitive,
might throw off the nuke talks. Nah, we don't want South Korea thinking we're
ready to support them with more arms." Or, just as likely, "Nah, nobody cares
Of course, the battles across the Pacific that
led to the Japanese surrender after the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
didn't make the cut either. But that's not because they are forgotten.
Wasn't Iwo Jima immortalized, yet again, in two Clint Eastwood films a couple
of years ago? And will Americans ever forget Pearl Harbor - still the worst
attack on US soil despite the claims of forgetful politicos and editorialists
that 9/11 ranks first? No, the thinking on the war against Japan would have
been somewhat different from that on Korea. Maybe something like this: "No way.
Japan is our ally, we can't offend them it might throw off the next talks on
Not that more evidence is needed about how easy it is to forget Korea except in
times of periodic crisis, but the latest proof came with the appointments of
the first two special envoys for global trouble spots: George Mitchell for "the
Middle East", a nebulous term that really means Israel and Palestine, and
Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Special envoy for Korea? Silly question. It's not likely the notion even came
up for consideration. Certainly no one asked about Korea when Mitchell,
preening his feathers for resolving far-simpler matters in Northern Ireland,
and Holbrooke, who knows about Korea from his days as assistant secretary for
East Asia and the Pacific, were presented by Obama and Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton in a full-dress back-patting session.
If Korea appears as a secondary issue, it's not for want of trying on the part
of North Korea. Why else has the North Korean propaganda mill been churning out
alternately shrill and conciliatory statements? One day Pyongyang wants to make
nice with the Obama team, the next it accuses the US of being up to its old
Think "pre-emptive strike". That's a phrase that North Korea deploys whenever
it needs attention or an edge in negotiations. How else would one expect the
North to interpret the Pentagon decision to dispatch F-16 fighters to South
Korea in place of Apache helicopters, renowned for close-in assaults on tanks?
No way could North Korea think about getting rid of its nuclear weapons, roared
Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency, when the US was committing the
"absolutely unpardonable crime" of getting "frantic with arms buildup for
aggression aimed at a pre-emptive strike ... while paying lip-service to
dialogue and the like".
As Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, rightly observed, "Pyongyang may be
trying to draw Obama's attention with its recent rash of commentaries saying it
intends to keep its nuclear weapons."
If Obama has signaled anything about Korea, it is that North Korea will have to
try a lot harder for him to cast a glance in that direction, much less name a
special envoy with the luster of Mitchell or Holbrooke. Experts believe,
however, he will have to do just that if the participants in the stalled
six-nation talks are ever to persuade the North to carry out the terms of the
six-nation agreements of 2007 for disabling and then dismantling its nuclear
"If Obama appoints a North Korea policy coordinator with exclusive power,
that's a clear sign the Obama government is energetically going to work on
Korea," said Paik Hak Soon, North Korea director at the Sejong Institute in
Seoul. Behind all the rhetoric, he believes, the North Koreans "are saying they
are trying to prepare for the nuclear issue".
So what was wrong with Christopher Hill, who took over as assistant secretary
for East Asia and the Pacific after serving as ambassador to Korea, as the
special envoy on the nuclear issue? In the final weeks, said Paik, "Bush
policy-makers were trying to project North Korea's image as a bad guy." Now,
Paik continued, "North Korean leadership is sending a message to the Obama
administration - that the character of the North Korean issue is not as the
Bush administration has stated."
While Obama may not name a special envoy on North Korea, Pyongyang may find a
sympathetic listener in Kurt Campbell, who's likely to get the nod as assistant
secretary for the region. Unlike Hill, Campbell hasn't been posted here but did
serve as deputy defense secretary for Asia. he has also shown his credentials
as a compromiser by collaborating on books with soft-liners, most recently
Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
The Obama team, however, will go through a great deal of ritualistic bowing
before they get serious about Korea. That is, unless North Korea manages to get
their attention first by doing something more than yakking.
The tenor of the US-Korea relationship came through in a phone chat between
Clinton and South Korea's Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan. He had to wait in
line for his 10 minutes of pro-forma palaver - one of a series of conversations
that Clinton had with "counterparts from Washington's major allies", as Yonhap
The read-out on the conversation was the stuff of satire. Yes, they agreed it
was "desirable for the two nations to have a summit or other high-level
consultations at an early date for in-depth discussions", said the Foreign
Ministry. Clinton "also emphasized the importance of the Seoul-Washington
alliance and expressed hope for a resolution to the nuclear issue and
co-prosperity of the two sides".
The ho-hum wording was about the same as that of every conversation between an
American secretary of state and South Korean foreign minister at the outset of
every administration since the aftermath of the Korean War.
But then wasn't that how Obama wanted it when he decided to skip over a passing
reference to the heroics of the Americans who fought to save the South from the
"Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked until
their hands were raw so that we might live a better life," he declaimed after
enumerating a few heroic moments of American military history.
How far the Obama administration is likely to want to go in heroic defense of
the South is extremely uncertain. On the evidence of his first few days in
office, Korea remains the forgotten war - one that he would dearly prefer to
stay that way.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.