Adrian Hamilton: Obama risks making the Korean crisis worse

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The very worst response to the Korean crisis is to do what President Obama did yesterday: that is to announce a joint US-South Korean military exercise on the border this weekend. The State Department then explained that the exercise had been planned for some time and that its aim was one of deterrence rather than aggression. But it also announced that it would be moving an aircraft carrier from Japan to Korean waters forthwith.

We've been here before and it's never done any good. Certainly it's done nothing to change Pyongyang's behaviour. It was South Korea's military exercises this month, in response to the sinking of one of its warships by a North Korean submarine, that helped bring about the latest clash as the northern regime upped the ante by opening artillery fire on Yeonpyeong Island.

It was only a few months ago that the same US carrier was sent into the same waters in a demonstration of strength. It had no effect on the North's stance then, and it is unlikely to have any more this time round.

Of course this incident is more serious than others in the past. Television pictures of whole villages burning and the loss of several civilian lives on the island have aroused popular anger in the South and the demand that the government "do something" in retaliation. But if history teaches you anything it is that gesture politics, when it comes to waving the military stick, is the cause of many a disaster.

And in the case of the Western response to North Korea it is gesture politics out of futility rather than determination. The joint exercise is taking place, the USS George Washington is speeding to the area, not to do anything but to create the appearance that Washington and Seoul are "doing something".

One can sympathise with their predicament. The West can huff and it can puff but there is very little that it can do to bring the North Korean house down. The regime has nuclear weapons and has recently displayed the fact that it has gone well down the road of uranium enrichment.

The US no longer has the power through its perceived military predominance to force change in the region. Yet it dare not risk total armed confrontation any longer. The UN is no use because of China's veto in the Security Council. Kim Jong-il's rule in Pyongyang is uncertain as he attempts to invest his younger son, Kim Jong-un, with the succession. And yet it would be a mistake to dismiss all prospects of a peaceful resolution just as it is a mistake to dismiss North Korea either as a manipulative, evil, militaristic powerhouse or as a ramshackle failed state incapable of anything.

In reality it is neither, or rather something of both. There is nothing that it has done so far that is entirely irrational. Developing nuclear weapons and uranium enrichment may make no sense economically, but it has immeasurably increased its security from the outside attack it fears.

At the same time, from Pyonyang's point of view, all its actions have taken place in waters whose allocation to South Korea at the end of the Korean War it has never accepted and continues to dispute. Indeed, it has a point if you look at a map.

If the regime's main fear is, as it is, of foreign intervention, then playing the aggressive card makes sense. And if your main problem is, as it so often is, domestic power politics, then raising foreign fears is a well-established tactic for ensuring internal unity.

The truth is that no-one really knows what the political situation within Korea is. It may be that Kim Jong-il is seeking military support for his son by scoring some aggressive points against the South. It may be that the military is displaying their own muscle to the son by baring their teeth so dramatically.

We don't know. Beijing probably doesn't know. Which is why it has seemed so impotent to control its ally's actions. It's very easy to declare that China should act as a parent to discipline its errant child, but having been through all this with South Africa and Zimbabwe, we should know by now that Beijing may be as constrained as we are in effecting correction. Pulling the plug on its neighbour could well be far more dangerous than letting it totter along whilst urging calm.

We should also know from Cold War experience that North Korea's behaviour is far from unprecedented. We had it all with the Communist regimes of South-East Asia and the Soviet Republics as the military dictatorships of Latin America. It proved very difficult to know just what was going on inside or to tell whether engagement or confrontation was the best policy. All we could do – as we should with North Korea now – is to hold to our own principles and accept our limitations.

Oppressive regimes (Burma, Saddam's Iraq, Mugabe's Zimbabwe) are far more capable of holding on to power than ever we expect. But economics, communication and generational evolution do eventually change things. Under these circumstances the best the outside world can do is to keep offering negotiations without expecting them to get anywhere and to keep hoping for internal change without intervening to effect it. It's not a brave course but it's a lot better than threatening military action because you can't think what else to do.

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