Austin Bay
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Last October, while riding on South Korea's KTX express train from Seoul to Cheonan, I glanced at one of the rail car's video monitors just as a chilling yet cyclically familiar news flash lit the screen: "North Korea threatens South Korea with nuclear war."

The KTX onboard video system provides English, Chinese and Japanese translations of news and passenger information updates. Geography and history influence the language choices -- the Korean Peninsula sits between China and Japan, the U.S. is South Korea's closest ally -- but economics is the most pertinent reason. In the 21st century, Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese are global money languages, and the KTX caters to business passengers. I pegged the officious gentlemen seated three rows up as Chinese. Like me, he was looking at the monitor. Chinese characters superseded the English alert, Japanese followed the Chinese.

Then a live video feed of the very fast train's current speed -- 304, no make that 305 kilometers per hour, quite a clip -- completely replaced the news flash. I wondered how my fellow passenger had assessed North Korea's message. One of the more interesting secret State Department cables released by Wikileaks quoted senior Chinese foreign ministry officials as admitting North Korea's ruling clique is certifiably nuts.

I went back to gazing out the window, at a valley filled with lush rice paddies, the rice plants yellow and ripe. A day or so earlier, I'd read a wire service report that North Korea faced yet another crop failure and unless donor nations responded immediately, the wretched souls ruled by the Kim family's hereditary communist dictatorship would once again face starvation. Yes, I thought, the starving North had just threatened the hardworking, productive and, as a result, well-fed South with nuclear immolation. The North's extortion racket in a rice kernel: Feed us, or we will kill you en masse.

With this week's nuclear test (Feb. 12, 2013) the cycle of threat continues, this time backed by an impressive bang.

The test demonstrates that despite years of coaxing the Kim regime with economic development projects (like the Kaesong Industrial Zone) and years of plying the dictatorship with rice, heavy oil and other goodies, the North continues to develop the military capabilities to make good on its threat of nuclear war.

The test also serves notice that the Korean War isn't over, and unfortunately some people need reminding. Last month, President Barack Obama proclaimed that a decade of war is ending. North Korean propagandists declared that current dictator, Kim Jong Un, had ordered the test as a response to "ferocious" U.S. hostility and "violent" opposition to North Korea's sovereign right to peacefully launch satellites. See, North Korea claims its December 2012 ballistic missile launch was all about civilian satellites, not testing a delivery system capable of hitting Seoul, Tokyo and Honolulu. Initial seismic analysis indicates the nuclear test had the punch of a 6 to 8 kiloton weapon. Though roughly half the power of the Hiroshima bomb, that's more than big enough to incinerate Pearl Harbor and the beach at Waikiki.

It is very probable that North Korea provides Iran's Islamic dictatorship with nuclear and missile technology, so North Korea's nuclear menace extends beyond East Asia and the Pacific to Central Asia, Europe and Africa.

China's official reaction was surprisingly tough, given that Beijing has been the North's chief benefactor and sponsor, but China has global economic interests that North Korean nukes and their Iranian offspring may imperil. China expressed firm opposition to the test. The Obama administration is calling for stiffer international sanctions to punish North Korea, but China is the only nation that can impose meaningful sanctions on the Kim regime. Beijing has never done so.

South Korea has won the economic, social and cultural dimensions of the Korean War. The only unsettled component is the one that puts the KTX, Seoul's nightclubs and the lush rice fields at risk: the military confrontation. Unless China acts decisively to end North Korea's nuclear quest, this week's multi-kiloton blast may lead South Korea and Japan to conclude the military dimension must be won as well.

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Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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