What to Do About N. Korea?

Posted Dec. 01, 2010, at 9:54 p.m.

It would be easy to think of the two Koreas as a couple of young kids roughhousing in the back seat of the car, in an obvious play for attention. To carry the metaphor a bit further, this scuffling distracts us as we try to steer our way through two current wars and a persistent recession.

Alternatively, North Korea can be seen as an imminent threat, with its growing nuclear muscle and its recent artillery attack against a nearby South Korean island. Far from ignoring the matter, some argue that U.S. missiles should destroy the North’s several known nuclear plants.

Armed attack likely would bring China to its defense, just as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s bold but unauthorized thrust into North Korea 60 years ago brought in 700,000 Chinese “volunteers,” prolonged the Korean War, and caused many more casualties.

The United States certainly doesn’t want another war on its hands. Yet it must always be prepared to defend itself, its interests and its allies and could handle another war if necessary. Same for China, and it has a Korean ally to protect just as the United States does.

North Korea’s artillery barrage against the South Korean island, killing four people and terrorizing the 1,200 islanders, surely was a provocation. And Pyongyang, with some justification, considers the just ended U.S.-South Korean military exercises, including a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier along the same coast, a provocation.

WikiLeaks’ flood of hacked official communications provides little help in sizing up the mess. For example, a cablegram telling about a U.S.-Russian meeting led The New York Times to report that 19 North Korean missiles allegedly shipped to Iran would enable Iran to strike Moscow or Western European capitals. The Times withheld the text of the cable at the request of the Obama administration.

A progressive organization called CommonDreams.org found the text among the WikiLeaks papers. It showed that the Russians were skeptical about the effectiveness of the missiles and even doubted that they existed.

It is clear that North Korea barely is surviving economically and in the midst of some sort of political restructuring. But even the experts disagree over whether the current leader, Kim Jong il, is grooming his son, Kim Jong-un, to take over and whether this has anything to do with actions such as the recent artillery attack.

One thing is clear, wrote international columnist Gwynne Dyer in the Bangor Daily News: Everyone, including the United States, wants North Korea to survive. That means that China can’t be expected to take drastic steps to force the North to behave better.

For now, about the best we can do is keep our powder dry, mind the driving and hope the uproar in the back seat quiets down.

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