Friday, March 6, 2009

Combat in Korea

Another day, another step toward brinkmanship on the divided Korean peninsula.

It has been announced that North Korea may target commercial aircraft entering its airspace, thereby causing many flights of foreign carriers to be diverted for security reasons. Those most affected include Asiana and Korean Air, South Korea's main airlines. Ana and JAL, two Japanese carriers, might also be affected, since flights to Beijing from Tokyo, for example, come close to traversing the North's airspace, but those airlines have declined to heed the warnings for now, unlike Singapore Airlines. The only airlines which quite surely seem to be exempt are those which actually fly into Pyongyang, and they are not many: Koryo Air, the North's national airline, Russia' Aeroflot, and perhaps a Chinese airline or two.

In recent weeks, North Korea has implicitly stated that it may launch a satellite into space and/or test fire a missile, with some pundits construing a satellite as a euphemism for the missile itself. Indeed, in such an opaque country, no one bar the country's eccentric leader has any idea of its true intentions.

What is known without a doubt is that the North's mercurial dictator, Kim Jong-Il, has been none too pleased with South Korea for the past year, as its new President, Lee Myung-Bak, has taken a hardline approach at its communist neighbor, shunning his predecessor's "Sunshine Policy" in return for a tit-for-tat relationship with the North (money, oil, and food aid in exchange for step-by-step denuclearization).

Many believe that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as North Korea is formally known, is trying to get the West's attention, sensing that Mr. Obama's foreign policy priorities include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Russia, and not the heretofore intractable Korean conflict.

Quite possibly.

But the fear is that if there is any regime that is unpredictable in this world, it is that of North Korea.

There is a slight chance that its latest promulgations may be more than mere words, with its irascible leader only more agitated by the news of upcoming military exercises taking place south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between Washington and Seoul.

So it's not quite combat (yet), but tensions have never been as high on the Korean Peninsula since the North tested a nuclear bomb in October 2006.

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