KOREA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Cold War flashpoint still heating up
, June 14, 2003
In general, the Cold War's flash points are no longer hot - the USSR collapsed and so did its empire, Taiwan and mainland China are if not the best of friends, at least get on and trade with each other, and Cuba seems to have become less of an irritant. But one Cold War frontier remains as dangerous as ever, and that is the border between North and South Korea.
No peace agreement has ever been signed between North and South Korea. The armed truce means that, in theory, the war could go hot at any time. The United Nations, which led the Western resistance during the Korean War, is still in theory in charge of the relations between the allied forces and the North Korean military.US presence
However, the real stabilising force is the presence of United States' armed forces in South Korea. Some 37,000 US troops remain stationed permanently in South Korea, along the border with North Korea.
US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld has mooted the idea of taking the US forces back from the border with the Koreans taking the front line positions, but so far it is only talk.
At present, the American forces act as a trip wire for the South Koreans. Any attack by North Korea would immediately involve the US forces in the conflict.
The older generation of Koreans has few illusions about the nature of their enemy and has lived through the transformation of South Korea from one of the world's most impoverished nations into a prosperous and wealthy country.
However, the younger generation of South Koreans does not take the threat from the North as seriously as their elders. They have been brought up in a country that is at peace and where the South Koreans have become one of the world's most important high-tech producers of computer chips, ships and other goods that the world needs.
But one has only to visit the South Korean capital of Seoul to see the threat to that prosperity. Seoul is a gleaming city, but it could all be destroyed, not by ballistic missiles, but by a simple artillery assault - because Seoul is within artillery range of the North Korean border.
If the North Korean regime was more stable, perhaps the situation would not be so worrying, but under the erratic Kim Jung-il, any threat must be taken seriously. The North is always on the brink of economic collapse and is only kept alive by food aid - from, amongst others, the United States.
The history of negotiations with North Korea is not a happy one. A senior South Korean banker is under investigation for channeling US$500 million to the North to facilitate a "breakthrough" summit between North and South Korea. But the recent bellicose rhetoric from North Korea means that the Cold War outpost could turn hot at any time.
The North Koreans, previously believed to have a few nuclear weapons, are now said to perhaps have dozens, making its threat to turn the South - and its ally the US - into a "sea of fire" more credible.
The North Koreans have played this game before. The US has in times past responded to a promise by the North Koreans to stop their nuclear program by resuming aid, but this time, it is unlikely to be so easily fooled.
For the South Koreans, a collapsed North Korea, may seem at least superficially, more threatening than a nuclear one. Having seen the enormous costs imposed on Germany by reunification, they seem reluctant to push the reunification idea too far. East Germany was said to be the most prosperous of the old East European communist states, but it has absorbed billions of dollars in investment and aid from the prosperous West while still remaining markedly less developed than western Germany.Chinese reaction
The situation is indeed a conundrum. If mainland China opened its border to North Koran refugees, as happened in eastern Europe with the fall of communism, it is likely that North Korea would collapse in short order.
However, while mainland China and North Korea may no longer be as close as "lips and teeth," as they were during Mao's time, mainland China has no desire to share a common border with a US ally, which would play on mainland Chinese fears of encirclement.
The South Korean idea that the North will catch up with the South and there will be a peaceful merger of equals is unlikely to occur, for the simple reason that this would threaten the hold on power of Kim Jung-il. Meanwhile, the North remains mired in communist poverty with little sign of improvement.
The US would probably roll up the North Korean army in short order, but the casualties could be vast. In the end, from the American point of view, it is important to involve its ally, South Korea, in any dialogue, and rely on mainland China and Russia to put pressure on the North.
In short, no solution seems likely as long as the communist regime of Kim Jung-il remains in power.
- Taiwan-based Jeffry Babb is a journalist with the China Post