The political framework that has kept Korea's smoldering 60-year-old war from fatally reigniting is changing and changing rapidly.
Japan is publicly altering its political approach to North Korea and China. This week, Japan indicated it plans to more fully integrate its military forces with those of the U.S. as well as deploy mobile forces capable of reacting to threats to its southern islands. That sends a hard message to China. These mobile forces could also be employed against North Korea.
The most profound change in public attitude, diplomatic stance and military posture, however, is occurring in South Korea. How these changes will affect regional stability is the subject of intense speculation.
North Korea's cycle of wicked behavior has not changed. Last Monday, North Korea threatened to launch a nuclear war. Dictator Kim Jong-Il's regime has a script. It issues threats, which are often augmented by actual attacks. The threats are followed by offers to negotiate and demands for aid.
This extortion racket is based on the premise that the destructive consequences of all-out war in one of the world's most economically productive regions, East Asia, are so great Kim's neighbors won't risk it. South Korea's capital, Seoul, lies within range of North Korean rocket artillery. Even if a North-South war remained conventional (i.e., no nuclear weapons), Seoul would suffer significant damage. Kim bets South Korea, Japan and the U.S. will send the impoverished North food aid and other economic goodies. His regime also gambles that China will prop it up and undermine political and economic sanctions South Korea and its allies may attempt to impose.
The bet has paid off -- for the most part.
South Korea, however, appears to have had it (finally) with Kim's racket. Two deadly attacks perpetrated by North Korea this year -- the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March and the shelling of a South Korean island in November -- have deeply angered the South Korean people. These incidents have accelerated a shift in the South Korean public's attitude.
Change was already in the wind in 2008 as South Korea began to curtail its Sunshine Policy. Crafted by left-leaning "peace" politicians in 1998, the policy offered the North economic incentives to end its nuclear weapons quest by demonstrating the South's constructive intentions. North Korea, however, saw the policy as an indication that thuggery paid. Moreover, it seemed that younger South Koreans believed the propaganda line that America was the root of all global evil and that Washington had caused the Korean War.
The dictatorship, however, overplayed its hand when it tested a nuke in 2006. That detonation killed the Sunshine Policy, though it took a national election to confirm it. Last month, South Korea's Unification Ministry officially declared the Sunshine Policy a failure.
With this year's attacks as bitter evidence, coaxing the North is out and countering it is increasingly favored. South Korea is discussing military reprisals against the North's nuclear facilities. The 2010 attacks may have closed the gap between older South Koreans prepared to confront the North and the younger generation who until recently believed peace could be bought like an iPod.
This week, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak outlined a plan for Korean reunification with Seoul in charge. A government spokesman said Lee's plan reflects long-term trends and is not predicated on a near-term collapse of the Kim regime.
The North sees the plan as political and psychological warfare. It is indeed such warfare, but based on political and economic reality, not lies and bombast, for it emphasizes the South's immense strength and the North's weakness. It also encourages factions in North Korea's government and military that may oppose Kim Jong-Il and his likely successor, his son, Kim Jong-Un. South Korea is saying it is the future, the Kim regime the past, so make your choice.
To make that gambit work, South Korea will have to stick to its guns, literally and figuratively. How the North will respond to a determined South remains unknown, but for the next 12 to 24 months, the situation in East Asia will be particularly precarious.