By Michael Breen
For the first time in a long time, commentators are warning of the likelihood of war on the Korean Peninsula.
Are they correct? Are the North’s special forces massing in secret DMZ tunnels? Will tens of thousands of us be dead soon?
This question, and the commentary that has prompted it, comes of course in the wake of the shelling by the North Koreans of homes and military facilities on Yeonpyeong Island.
Although there have been a number of deadly clashes and incidents over the years, at sea or across the DMZ, there was something new about this one. Not only was it the first artillery strike on South Korean soil since the war ended in 1953, but it also happened in daylight and when there were cameras there to capture the explosions and plumes rising from the debris.
This was enough to spark global excitement. The BBC went live. CNN correspondent Stan Grant told the world the two Koreas were on ``the brink of war.”
Several foreign companies withdrew their people from South Korea and banned all travel through Seoul for two weeks. Citizens discussed their options with their families ― to stay put or leave ― should the worst happen.
We were not on the brink of war. But, to ask again, are we now?
No, we aren’t. And we know that we aren’t.
What we have instead is analysis and commentary and, as we are a global news story for now, it is as if a microphone is being passed around the room. Our ideas all get said out loud.
Take, for example, the comment this week by America’s top soldier, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the situation is becoming ``increasingly dangerous.” (He actually said this in response to a question from a soldier in Iraq, a place which, everyone in Korea will agree, really is a war zone.)
He is not wrong. When a cold truce turns hot for an hour, it is very dangerous. But it is not war. Nor did he say it was. But, still, his comments got turned into a ``war warning in Korea.”
Another driver of the war theory that gears up at such times is the not-unreasonable long-look view that, as history is the tale of worst-case outcomes, so this Korean story will end in bloodshed. When two states each claim ownership of the other’s land and are willing to die for it, and only one is a democracy with a viable economy, you can confidently predict lots more trouble.
But, actually, history is not always about worst-case outcomes. The end-games for Nazism and European Communism, for example, were very different.
What has added to the nervousness about the present circumstances is that, after several years of taking a relatively softly-softly approach with North Korea, the government in Seoul is talking about responding vigorously next time. We don’t know if this will make the North Koreans think twice or whether it could lead to escalation.
But even this policy change will not result in two sides, unable through pride or public opinion, being dragged kicking into a war they don’t want.
For what remains true is that neither side is choosing war. The South is waiting out the communist regime, and not unhappily because there is a consensus about the need to avoid the social and economic costs of unification for a decade or two.
The regime in the North is simply bent on survival. Its dilemma is that if it does what it must and change its posture from ``military-first” to ``economy-first,” like everyone else, it will lose its raison d’etre and be removed. War with the south would simply accelerate the day.
Thus, we may only expect more of the same.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.