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The Next Korean War?

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
November 23, 2010
The Daily Beast

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This may be the most dangerous moment on the Korean Peninsula since the truce ending the Korean War in 1953. North Korea's artillery attack on a densely populated South Korean island, harming civilians, represents a whole new level of escalation. Notably, the South Koreans fired back—which sent a good strong message. The Pyongyang crazies never attacked civilians this way before. But they torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel in March, killing 46 sailors, and they hadn't done anything that provocative before either. Not to be forgotten, they just took American scientists to view their new uranium enrichment facility, which could add to North Korea's stockpile of eight to 12 nuclear weapons. Is war looming on the peninsula once again? Why has Pyongyang taken these alarming military actions? What can South Korea and the United States do now?

The short answers are:

First, North and South Korea have never been closer to war since 1953, but close is actually not too close because of the terrible consequences of war for both sides.

Second, Pyongyang wouldn't be sticking its finger so brazenly in South Korean and American eyes if the regime didn't want something. And this something, interestingly, might be its desire for new negotiations—or it might be something to do with Pyongyang's Byzantine succession dance now under way.

Third, Seoul and Washington don't have very good options, as usual, but they can't just do nothing. In the face of these two North Korean attacks, alliance credibility is flatly on the line.

North Koreans have done crazy and dangerous things before, but never so blatantly as now. On the other side, the new South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, has stated many times that he wouldn't put up with such provocations and was going to be tougher than his predecessors. On top of this, relations between China and North Korea have been “warming,” says Evans Revere, one of America's leading experts on the region. This warming certainly emboldens Pyongyang further. And the Obama administration has recently dispatched the U.S. Navy to Asian waters to send Beijing a message about its muscle-flexing. This all adds up to a combustible situation.

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