By Gwynne Dyer
Having just been on holiday with two very strong-willed little boys aged eight and nine, I feel particularly well qualified to explain why the two Koreas have gone to the brink of war over some loudspeakers, but probably won’t go over the edge.
George and James could explain the process even better themselves, but child labour laws prevent them from writing for newspapers, so I’ll do it for them.
It began with a land-mine explosion in the Demilitarised Zone between the two countries that severely wounded two South Korean army sergeants. The mine was of an old Soviet design, so Seoul said it must have been put there by North Korea and demanded an apology from Pyongyang.
It is possible that the mine was just left over from the Korean War that ended 62 years ago (land-mines can last a long time), but it is more likely that the North Koreans did sneak across the DMZ and lay the mine recently. Pyongyang gets very upset every year around this time, when South Korea and the United States hold their annual joint military exercises.
So to punish North Korea for its alleged crime, South Korea re-activated the loudspeakers that used to broadcast anti-North Korean propaganda across the DMZ until they were turned off 11 years ago. Nobody can hear the propaganda except North Korean soldiers on the other side of the DMZ, so it is hard to see what actual harm it is doing, but North Korea rose to the bait with alacrity.
Last Thursday afternoon, North Korean troops fired a rocket and several artillery shells at the loudspeakers, though none seem to have hit them. South Korea responded with a barrage of dozens of 155mm artillery rounds, which led North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (the pudgy one with the very bad haircut) to declare a “semi-state of war” and set a 48-hour deadline for the loudspeakers to be turned off.
Otherwise, Kim said, his troops would carry out “indiscriminate strikes” against the South. This would have been a grave threat, if he actually meant it, since most of Seoul, a city of 25 million people, is within artillery range of the DMZ, but the Saturday deadline passed without further shooting.
Instead, urgent talks began on Saturday in the “truce” village of Panmunjom, in the middle of the DMZ, between Hwang Pyong-so, the political director of the North Korean armed forces, and Kim Kwan-jin, national security adviser to the South Korean president.
Three days later, however, the talks were still underway, the South Korean loudspeakers were still blaring out and North Korean artillery, landing craft and submarines were moving towards the frontiers. “If nothing is agreed, we have to continue the broadcasting,” said the South Korean representative at the talks. “We are tired of speaking the language of escalation.”
That last sentence doesn’t even make sense. Are Kim Kwan-jin and his North Korean counterpart really flirting with the idea of a war that would certainly kill hundreds of thousands of people, and might even turn nuclear, over some loudspeakers? At the time of writing (Monday evening Korean time), the two Koreas were still dancing on the edge of the abyss, but what is interesting is the distinct lack of panic in other capitals.
That brings us back to the two litle boys. Siblings who are close in age, even if they are friends, are also rivals, and they generally squabble a lot. They often get locked into quarrels over matters of little or no importance and seem unable to walk away from them.
What keeps these struggles from ending in real violence, and usually restores order in the end, is adult intervention. Even if they resent it, the kids also secretly welcome it, because it frees them from the trap of their own emotions.
The adults, in this case, are the great-power allies of the two Koreas: China for the North, and the United States for the South. It is not that Americans and Chinese are really more grown-up than Koreans, but being farther away, they can see how petty the confrontation really is, and they have no intention of being dragged into a war over it.
This does not give us an ironclad guarantees that there will not be a catastrophic war in the Korean peninsula, perhaps even one that draws both the United States and China in. Sometimes, as in the case of Sarajevo and the outbreak of the First World War, the squabbles of the local players do drag the bigger powers in against their will. But that is rare, and it probably will not happen in this case.
North Korea’s young and distinctly unimpressive dictator may need a crisis to strengthen his hold on power, but he certainly does not need a war that he would surely lose: (South Korea has twice as many people and an economy ten times as big as North Korea.) And while South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye needs to look tough, she knows that her own people definitely don’t want a war.
So this crisis will probably die down amidst much angry muttering by both Koreas – both of which are secretly relieved not to be going to war.
The writer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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