Koreas North & South, and the UN
Considerable public attention, and no little controversy, has attended statements related to both North Korea and South Korea in the past few days, underscoring the global strategic importance of that Northeast Asia peninsula.
Pyongyang, the increasingly isolated capital of the world’s last committed Communist regime, abruptly shut off the direct hot line communication link established as part of now ended détente with Seoul. The move disrupted commuting by hundreds of South Korean workers employed in the Kaesong industrial park in North Korea.
North Korea also plans to launch a communications satellite in the next several weeks. The project is described as peaceful, but observers in Washington, Tokyo and other capitals believe the announced goal may be a cover for testing the military Taepondong-2 missile, which could strike Alaska, Hawaii and other distant targets.
The sole surviving Stalinist state also has publicly threatened war in response to the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises involving 26,000 American troops. Pyongyang has bellicosely berated the maneuvers as a prelude to attack, and declared that any attempt to interrupt the satellite launch would mean war with the U.S. and Japan as well as South Korea.
Meanwhile, Ban Ki-moon, the South Korean Secretary-General of the United Nations, has generated unwanted notoriety by describing the United States as a “deadbeat”. He was referring to the fact that Washington is regularly late in paying UN dues. On the other hand, while generally tardy the U.S. does underwrite approximately one quarter of the $4.86 billion operating budget. Dilatory is different from deadbeat.
Ban’s comments were supposed to be private, behind closed doors to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. In Washington, of course, nothing is necessarily off the record, especially when Congress is involved, as the immediate leak of his remark demonstrates. Ban’s slip was uncharacteristic of this usually judicious and careful diplomatic pro.
Nonetheless, Washington’s special relationship with Seoul will survive, as will strongly established engagement with the UN, despite such occasional family feuds. President Obama wisely let Press Secretary Robert Gibbs address the flap, in appropriately dull diplomatic language.
Our UN and Korea alliances remain deeply rooted, in blood as well as diplomacy. When the Korean War began in 1950, the Cold War was pervasive, communism seemed to have global initiative, and the stakes were ultimately nuclear. The war confirmed the wisdom of restraint along with force and demonstrated the complexities of the diplomatic world. That war, conducted under UN auspices and authority, also firmly established the legitimacy of the world organization.
The Korean War did not liberate the North but effectively defended the South; the armistice ending the fighting has endured for over half a century. South Korea meanwhile has performed nothing less than a modernization miracle, moving in that historically short space of time from peasant autocracy to extraordinarily prosperous democracy.
Initially, President George W. Bush went out of his way to chide South Korean President Kim Dae-jung for Seoul’s “sunshine policy” of cooperation with the North, while putting the brakes on Clinton administration multilateral initiatives. Over time, Bush changed to endorse the Six Power talks, which have led to what little progress has been achieved with Pyongyang.
The Obama administration, firmly multilateral in approach, will not repeat the erratic Bush course. South Korea remains a particularly loyal ally, while the UN umbrella facilitates cooperation in Northeast Asia as around the globe.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha and author of ‘After the Cold War’ (NYU Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org