Flashpoint – Korea

The combined actions of North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China and Japan have probably made the Korean peninsula the most dangerous potential flashpoint in the whole world at the moment.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ― North Korea ― has fired off four more ballistic missiles, simultaneously, alarming neighboring South Korea, China and Japan, along with the United States, which has 28,500 troops based in South Korea. Pyongyang’s obvious continuing pursuit of its effort to possess nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles is alarming not only to countries in its region, but also to the world, which continues to condemn it ― ineffectually ― in international circles.

It doesn’t help that the DPRK also apparently just assassinated leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, with nerve gas ― evidence that the country’s leadership is at best homicidal, paranoiac and somewhat stupid, since Kim Jong Nam was more or less under the protection of China, virtually North Korea’s only serious patron in the world.

South Korea, in collaboration with the United States, hasn’t helped the situation much either in terms of a serious quest for tranquility in the region. Once again, with South Korea, America is carrying out its annual broad spring military exercise, called “Foal Eagle,” in the area. It is scheduled to last eight weeks, to the end of April. Skipping the exercise would give the impression that we were bowing to DPRK sensibilities and complaints, but it is nonetheless the case that North Korea’s missile tests and the U.S.-South Korean exercise are strongly linked.

South Korea has also ousted its president, Park Geun-hye, on charges of corruption and has just placed under arrest Lee Jae-yong, the head of Samsung, a company that is estimated to account for 20 percent of South Korea’s gross domestic product.

China has made its usual ritual condemnation of North Korea’s weapons-waving, but it is also cross at the United States for being in the process of deploying in South Korea an anti-missile defense system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). It is, in principle, being put into place, by the end of April, as a measure against North Korea’s growing potential. China, however, has also taken offense at its being installed, claiming to see it as deployed against Chinese weapons systems, an unwelcome intrusion in the region and an aggressive U.S. measure directed against it.

Russia, which also has a small border with the DPRK, has so far stayed out of the melee. Japan was very agitated at North Korea’s firing of its ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan earlier this week.

All in all, what is happening in the Korean peninsula, or what could happen there, is shaping up as President Donald Trump’s first foreign affairs drama. It would be nice to hope that matters will calm down once the U.S.-South Korean exercise is over, the South Korean president is replaced, and China is persuaded that the THAAD system is not directed against it. In the meantime, the rest of the world should hope that everyone remains cool and calm in Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Washington ― a lot to wish for, given the volatility of the region.

No one must step on these various Easter eggs. War in East Asia could have unanticipated, highly undesirable consequences. Mr. Trump could throw cold water on the threatening dogfight by calling strongly as a new leader for a resumption of the six-party, DPRK-South Korea-Japan-China-Russia-U.S. talks, suspended in 2009. He could cut the length of “Foal Eagle” to put something on the table. A peace initiative as his first major foreign policy move could look very good.

This editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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