By Sunny Lee
Korea Times correspondent
BEIJING ― Although tensions are spiking on the Korean Peninsula since an international inquiry last week officially held the North responsible for the fatal attack on the South Korean Navy frigate Cheonan, and some observers warn of a possible major arms confrontation in the region, a veteran Korea watcher begs to differ.
"I think such worries are premature," said David Straub, a former senior foreign service officer of the U.S. State Department, who now serves as the associate director of the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University.
A sense of crisis was palpable when the Washington Post said the current standoff was "perhaps the most serious crisis on the Korean Peninsula in more than two decades." The New York Times similarly said the situation on the peninsula already appears to be "the closest" the two countries have come to open hostilities since 1994, when the North threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire."
Straub, who served as the State Department's Korea desk director for two years from 2002, has a different take. "Even though the government of Lee Myung-bak and the Obama administration in the U.S. are taking further steps, they're not being provocative and they're not taking military steps directly against North Korea," he said.
On the North Korea side, he said the way the attack was conducted reveals that Pyongyang also doesn't want a full-scale military confrontation with Seoul either.
"If North Korea was seeking war or a major military conflict, then it would have launched an open attack on the Cheonan. What it did was, it engaged in a carefully-planned sea attack, apparently in the belief that as long as it was carefully conducted, it would be able to deny its involvement and make it very difficult for South Korea to respond.
"That suggests that North Koreans are well aware of the dangers of open military conflict with South Korea and also the relative weakness of their military," he said.
Some Korean analysts still see an armed conflict in store if Seoul goes ahead with propaganda broadcasts across the militarized border and Pyongyang responds militarily.
Chinese experts are not an exception. In the Chinese state television program, "Global Watch," on Thursday, Piao Jianyi, the chief of the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: "The South's expected psychological propaganda broadcasting is extremely worrisome."
The North said it would shoot out the speakers used; and the South replied that such an act would meet a military response.
Straub, who first arrived in Seoul in 1979 when the Cold War was in full swing, again discounts the fear. "Broadcasting propaganda on one's own side of the border is not a cause for war," he said.
"Even if there are some incidents along the Demilitarized Zone, we should not scare ourselves. Over the decades, there have been many incidents around DMZ. And a war has not occurred," he said.
The key to finding a solution to the current standoff, Straub said, is for the governments of South Korea and the United States to "follow a clear, principled and consistent policy" that both pressure North Korea to do the right thing, and also gives North Korea an opportunity to negotiate its way out of these problems.
Straub also differs from other analysts in that he isn't too preoccupied with the so-called "China factor." That is, whether China, a veto-wielding member of the United Nations and North Korea's only major ally, will support South Korea at the U.N. Security Council to pass any punitive resolution against North Korea.
"I believe it's appropriate to go to the United Nations Security Council. But the United Nations is one tool. It's not the most important tool.
"The most important is what South Korea does. The second most important is what the United States does," he said.
In fact, Straub said the international verdict and punishment on North Korea has already been given as countries have recognized the attack on the Cheonan as an unprovoked action by the North, making them shun the regime.
"This really should be on the top of people's understanding. But unfortunately amid our focus on specific activities like the furor at the U.N., the point was lost," he said.
With regard to the Cheonan, experts are divided over who in the North ordered the fatal attack. Some point at a hard-line military faction. Others blame Kim Jong-il.
Speaking of Kim, Straub knows something about him. Last summer, he accompanied former U.S. President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang on a mission to free two American journalists who had been detained there.
"I think it would be very unlikely for something like that to be done without Kim Jong-il's instruction," Straub said.