A Cold War wound
America should do all it can to reduce growing tension between the two Koreas
By John Grula 07/01/2010
The March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan by a suspected North Korean torpedo, which killed 46 sailors, has thrust North Korea and the situation on the Korean peninsula back into the world’s spotlight. Of course, South Korea and the United States have denounced this incident as the latest example of North Korean treachery, but nearly lost in the uproar is the fact that the South Korean military vessel was sailing in disputed waters only 12 miles off the coast of western North Korea — surely a needlessly provocative act by the South.
And we should probably take with a grain of salt the May 20 report by a team of “international investigators” that concluded a North Korean submarine was indeed responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan. This international team, as it turns out, was commissioned by South Korea. Meanwhile, the North has denied the allegations, and according to articles appearing in the Los Angeles Times May 22 and May 28, even many South Koreans are skeptical about the report’s conclusions and suspect the South Korean government of election-year machinations.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is constantly portrayed by our media as a paranoid nutcase, but as the old saying goes, “even paranoids have enemies.” And no one less than Richard Nixon philosophized that the best way to intimidate your enemies is to make them think you’re crazy. But Mr. Kim’s paranoia may have found an empirical basis in 2004, when an explosion on a train he was riding killed 160 people. Some analysts believe it was an assassination attempt. Indeed, Fidel Castro is Exhibit A when it comes to proving the West has long had a policy of trying to knock-off foreign leaders it doesn’t like.
Under the so-called “sunshine policy,” which started toward the end of the Clinton administration, South Korean leaders improved relations with the North and tensions declined as shipments of food and financial aid alleviated suffering in the North. In addition, the joint construction of more than 100 factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong provided about 40,000 jobs in the impoverished North. But then, in 2002, President George W. Bush accused North Korea of being part of an “axis of evil,” and the sunshine policy started to fall apart. Other hard-line Bush administration policies resulted in North Korea withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, and this diplomatic disaster accelerated the downward spiral in relations between the two Koreas that has brought them to their current impasse.
Since withdrawing from the NPT, North Korea has left no doubt that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In 2006 and 2009, it claimed to have conducted tests of nuclear devices that later proved to have been less than successful. The 2006 test was clearly a dud, with an explosive yield equivalent to less than 1 kiloton of TNT. This very small yield, which compares to the 15 kiloton yield of the relatively primitive bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, indicates the 2006 test failed to achieve a nuclear chain reaction.
North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009 is estimated to have had a yield of about 4 kilotons, again quite small compared to the 20-40 kiloton range achieved in recent nuclear tests by other nations. Furthermore, a global network designed to sniff-out faint wind-borne traces of radioactive elements failed to detect any radioactivity after this second test. Some experts have speculated the test was faked with conventional explosives. In any event, at this point it is by no means certain that North Korea actually has a workable nuclear weapon.
Frequent US calls for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula are empty and hypocritical. North Korea has long been vulnerable to nuclear missile attacks by US submarines, which ply the waters near the Korean peninsula. The North knows this, and to a large extent it explains its defensive and belligerent rhetoric.
The US should now do all it can to reduce tensions between the two Koreas. If conventional war were to ever break out it would be devastating, especially to the South. This is because North Korea has a much larger conventional military that includes huge artillery and rocket forces deployed along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two nations. The North’s artillery and rockets could easily destroy the South Korean capital of Seoul, which is located only about 40 miles below the DMZ.
The division of the Korean peninsula is a 57-year-old Cold War anachronism that threatens world stability. Let us recall that only 40 years ago North Vietnam was our arch-enemy, and North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was vilified and demonized every bit as much as Kim Jong Il is today. But now Vietnam is united and our relations with that nation have become normalized. Why can’t the same thing happen in the case of Korea?
John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.