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Aug 21, 2010 10:59 pm

Will a Second Korean War Break Out?

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Food for Thought


USUALLY, there is a familiar cycle to Korea crises.

Like a street gang showing off its power to run amok in a well-heeled neighborhood, the North Koreans launch a missile over Japan or set off a nuclear test or stage an attack — as strong evidence indicates they did in March, when a South Korean warship was torpedoed. Expressions of outrage follow. So do vows that this time, the North Koreans will pay a steep price.

In time, though, the United States and North Korea’s neighbors — China, Japan, South Korea and Russia — remind one another that they have nothing to gain from a prolonged confrontation, much less a war. Gradually, sanctions get watered down. Negotiations reconvene. Soon the North hints it can be enticed or bribed into giving up a slice of its nuclear program. Eventually, the cycle repeats.

The White House betting is that the latest crisis, stemming from the March attack, will also abate without much escalation. But there is more than a tinge of doubt. The big risk, as always, is what happens if the North Koreans make a major miscalculation. (It wouldn’t be their first. Sixty years ago, Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, thought the West wouldn’t fight when he invaded the South. The result was the Korean War.)

What’s more, the dynamic does feel different from recent crises. The South has a hardline government whose first instinct was to cut off aid to the North, not offer it new bribes. At the same time, the North is going through a murky, ill-understood succession crisis.

And President Obama has made it clear he intends to break the old cycle. “We’re out of the inducements game,” one senior administration official, who would not discuss internal policy discussions on the record, said last week. “For 15 years at least, the North Koreans have been in the extortion business, and the U.S. has largely played along. That’s over.”

That may change the North’s behavior, but it could backfire. “There’s an argument that in these circumstances, the North Koreans may perceive that their best strategy is to escalate,” says Joel Wit, a former State Department official who now runs a Web site that follows North Korean diplomacy.

The encouraging thought is the history of cooler heads prevailing in every crisis since the Korean War. There was no retaliation after a 1968 raid on South Korea’s presidential palace; or when the North seized the American spy ship Pueblo days later; or in 1983 when much of the South Korean cabinet was killed in a bomb explosion in Rangoon, Burma; or in 1987 when a South Korean airliner was blown up by North Korean agents, killing all 115 people on board....

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More Comments:

Joseph Tether - 5/31/2010

Probably not. But if there is, we should excuse ourselves from joining the fray. In preparation for our non-participation, we should bring ALL our troops home from Korea - and every other country where we are squandering what little is left of our wealth. Let's start with Afghanistan and Iraq. Just say "Goodnight and good luck." Then close the door and turn out the light.

David - 5/31/2010

Not likely...what we have is two little pugelists children on the block. Each has a big brother. The big brrothers cannot allow a war to start as both have too much to lose...
Wont happen unless the United States completely collapses or China does...