OK, I know those of you in South Korea are probably feeling a bit edgy for now, amid all of the drills, exercises, and North Koreans threats, which I’m sure our State Department would say are absolutely, positively not terrorism in any way, shape, or form. Still, I doubt that things will be quite this bad in Seoul by Monday:
I don’t think we’ve seen the end of North Korea’s escalation, and I also think Christmas is a fairly likely occasion for more of that, but the North Koreans aren’t irrational, and that’s why this won’t come to full-scale war. Kim Jong Il and those around him all know what happens to them and their regime if it does. South Koreans need to be rational now, but they also need to be brave. We’re at this literally dreadful state of affairs because for too long, too many South Koreans and Americans refused to recognize the pathology of this regime and thus enabled its capacity to terrorize the South even more (and indirectly, the United States). A few people are still incapable of understanding, or perhaps just unwilling to understand, how that cycle has vastly increased the danger to both countries over the last 20 years, as each successive leader has failed to resist the temptation to “manage” the threat out of the headlines, only to see it reemerge in some slightly more terrible and brazen form. I like the way Sung Yoon Lee put it in his latest piece for the Asia Times:
The more people in democratic societies think about the North Korean regime as a threat to humanity and less as an idiosyncratic abstraction, the more they will be resolved not to allow their leaders to resort to politically expedient measures with each future provocation or defer Korean reunification. For the South Korean leadership, breaking the taboo of potential economic costs of reunification should be a high priority. [….]
It’s time to acknowledge that while status quo maintenance in the Korean Peninsula has worked in deterring war over the past 57 years, it has all but failed in deterring North Korea’s ever-growing strategy of brinkmanship. It is also time to accept that relying on China to resolve the North Korea problem has produced few returns over the past two decades. As Pyongyang presses ahead in 2011 on its proven path of provocation-for-compensation, Beijing will, as usual, counsel patience, exhorting Washington and Seoul to let bygones be bygones and embrace the future.
I don’t happen to believe it’s too late to break that cycle, but this is one of those times when being the citizen of a free nation requires actual, physical courage. This crisis is a test, no less than the June Democracy Movement of 1987 was. I hope South Korea passes it.