On Point: The Change in East Asia


by Austin Bay
December 14, 2010

The political framework that has kept Korea's smoldering60-year-old war from fatally reigniting is changing and changing rapidly.

Japan is publicly altering its political approach to NorthKorea and China. This week, Japan indicated it plans to more fully integrateits military forces with those of the U.S. as well as deploy mobile forcescapable of reacting to threats to its southern islands. That sends a hardmessage to China. These mobile forces could also be employed against NorthKorea.

The most profound change in public attitude, diplomaticstance and military posture, however, is occurring in South Korea. How thesechanges will affect regional stability is the subject of intense speculation.

North Korea's cycle of wicked behavior has not changed. LastMonday, North Korea threatened to launch a nuclear war. Dictator Kim Jong-Il'sregime has a script. It issues threats, which are often augmented by actualattacks. The threats are followed by offers to negotiate and demands for aid.

This extortion racket is based on the premise that thedestructive consequences of all-out war in one of the world's most economicallyproductive regions, East Asia, are so great Kim's neighbors won't risk it.South Korea's capital, Seoul, lies within range of North Korean rocketartillery. Even if a North-South war remained conventional (i.e., no nuclearweapons), Seoul would suffer significant damage. Kim bets South Korea, Japanand the U.S. will send the impoverished North food aid and other economicgoodies. His regime also gambles that China will prop it up and underminepolitical and economic sanctions South Korea and its allies may attempt toimpose.

The bet has paid off -- for the most part.

South Korea, however, appears to have had it (finally) withKim's racket. Two deadly attacks perpetrated by North Korea this year -- thesinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March and the shelling of a SouthKorean island in November -- have deeply angered the South Korean people. Theseincidents have accelerated a shift in the South Korean public's attitude.

Change was already in the wind in 2008 as South Korea beganto curtail its Sunshine Policy. Crafted by left-leaning "peace"politicians in 1998, the policy offered the North economic incentives to endits nuclear weapons quest by demonstrating the South's constructive intentions.North Korea, however, saw the policy as an indication that thuggery paid.Moreover, it seemed that younger South Koreans believed the propaganda linethat America was the root of all global evil and that Washington had caused theKorean War.

The dictatorship, however, overplayed its hand when ittested a nuke in 2006. That detonation killed the Sunshine Policy, though ittook a national election to confirm it. Last month, South Korea's UnificationMinistry officially declared the Sunshine Policy a failure.

With this year's attacks as bitter evidence, coaxing the Northis out and countering it is increasingly favored. South Korea is discussingmilitary reprisals against the North's nuclear facilities. The 2010 attacks mayhave closed the gap between older South Koreans prepared to confront the Northand the younger generation who until recently believed peace could be boughtlike an iPod.

This week, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak outlined aplan for Korean reunification with Seoul in charge. A government spokesman saidLee's plan reflects long-term trends and is not predicated on a near-termcollapse of the Kim regime.

The North sees the plan as political and psychologicalwarfare. It is indeed such warfare, but based on political and economicreality, not lies and bombast, for it emphasizes the South's immense strengthand the North's weakness. It also encourages factions in North Korea'sgovernment and military that may oppose Kim Jong-Il and his likely successor,his son, Kim Jong-Un. South Korea is saying it is the future, the Kim regimethe past, so make your choice.

To make that gambit work, South Korea will have to stick toits guns, literally and figuratively. How the North will respond to adetermined South remains unknown, but for the next 12 to 24 months, thesituation in East Asia will be particularly precarious. 

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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