While the left's eyes have been diverted by the stupid brutality of Israel's actions on Monday, which have seriously raised the prospects of a clash with Turkey, in the Far East the world's last Cold War frontier has quickly and worryingly heated up. On 26th March a South Korean warship mysteriously exploded in its territorial waters and sank with the deaths of 46 crew. The finger of blame pointed to the senile Stalinist monarchy of the "Democratic" People's "Republic" of Korea who, in its typically hysterical fashion, threatened war if the South pressed ahead with sanctions in response. Its denials have been compromised by a multinational investigation which concluded a North Korean torpedo caused the explosion, backed by the recovery of the device in question by the South's navy.
As far as the North are concerned the South's song and dance is really a provocation, one that follows a long line of others. This piece argues that the Conservative government elected in 2007 is an "ultra-rightist" formation committed to engineering confrontation and, in the process, clamping down on organisations and cross border institutions that advocate reunification. The North also claims the sinking was caused by the South to bolster the government's chances in regional elections held today. Apparently some 54% of voters have said their vote will be influenced by the North's "provocation".
If one was of a conspiratorial mindset and knew little about the permutations of North-South relations, you would find circumstantial suggestions that, at most, wouldn't put it past the South's government. The president, Lee Myung-bak, has a reputation for being no stranger to the murkier side of Korean politics. Formerly a high flyer with Hyundai, his 18 year political career has seen him fined for campaign overspends, accused of illegal property speculation, and has been implicated in fraud allegations. Since taking on the presidency Lee has pursued "business facing" policies, including the 'Grand Korean Waterway' - a mega-project that would have deleterious impacts on the environment as well as being of questionable commercial value. And as a good neoliberal his has overseen a round of unpopular privatisations. Nevertheless by the start of this year his approval ratings had recovered from a low of 17% in summer 2008 (on the back of a row over US beef imports) to 52%.
Everyone can agree that Lee is a slippery character. Taking his hard line conservatism, anti-union politics, authoritarianism, and hubris into account one cannot but draw comparisons with Thatcher. But for all this his administration doesn't need to manufacture a clash with the North for electoral expediency's sake.
If one reject's the North's claims and accepts the South's findings, what possible motive could they have for sinking the warship? If this was a shot across Lee's bows in protest against the harder line, it could not have backfired more than storming a ship of aid workers and shooting nine of them dead. There is the possibility of an accidental firing without official sanction - after a lifetime of being pumped full of paranoid propaganda, you can understand how a young officer might have an itchy trigger finger. There's also the small matter of major joint South-US naval exercises next week, though its difficult to believe the torpedo attack would make deter them from undertaking a major demonstration of sea power.
If it turns out to have come from the higher echelons, it could be an example of the oldest trick in the book. According to The Economist (admittedly not the most value-free observer of international affairs), there is evidence of a few cracks in the Jucheist monolith. A botched currency reform - ostensibly to manage inflation and curb the influence of private markets - knocked two zeroes of North Korean bank notes and abruptly slashed already precarious living standards. These have been rescinded and the regime has publicly apologised (scapegoating and shooting the minister that oversaw the roll out), but the prospect of a return of mass starvation remains. This most unwelcome of spectres could put the DPRK's legitimacy into question ahead of the centenary of Kim Il Sung's birth. So what better way to try and avert this by uniting the country against perceived external aggression?
There is a tendency among mainstream commentators to portray the North as the most rogue of rogue states. The grotesque personality cult, the toe-curlingly primitive propaganda, the nuclear weapons and massive military all give the appearance of a regime that is as irrational as it is unpredictable. But context is everything. The disfigurement of the North's economy by its 'army-first' policy is rooted in the USSR's reluctance to provide it military aid in the aftermath of the Sino-Soviet split (Kim sided with Mao against Krushchev's de-stalinisation). Whereas the countries of the Warsaw Pact enjoyed Soviet guarantees right up to its dissolution, North Korea did not. Facing its own Cold War frontier with a large South Korean and US military presence (who were armed with nuclear weapons) it struggled to plug the gap itself: it was no coincidence that an obscure reference to the Juche idea in a 1950s article by the Great Leader was dusted off and placed at the heart of DPRK propaganda from the mid-60s on (glossing over the significant industrial aid it continued receiving from the Russians until the mid-70s). Its moves to build up military capacity to counter that of the US and the South has, in the twisted logics of Cold War geopolitics, been used to justify the US's continued presence, which in turn feeds into the North's armament, and so it goes. Both sides refuse to stand down for fear of attack by the other.
The truth is no one has an interest in war. While the US would like to see a united Korea under its military protection as strategic leverage against China, Obama's administration like all those before it know the price paid in lives, materiel, and funds would be too much for the American public to stomach. It's one thing to take on lightly armed decrepit states and insurgencies: it's quite another to enter a war with the prospect of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons being deployed against US troops. Similarly for the South - even if fighting does not dip south of the demilitarised zone, the 10 million inhabitants of Seoul and the 25 million in surrounding areas are in range of the North's guns. In all likelihood the area up to the DMZ would be comprehensively devastated. And on top of that the South would face the bill of absorbing the North. The Economist puts the cost for unification at $900bn - it would of course be much higher if the North gets raised to the ground. And of course, the North itself knows it cannot win and hopes a combination of hysterical denunciation, rocket launches and nuclear testing will be enough to keep its enemies at bay. I might not think much of Trotsky's analysis of the USSR, but his insight that the Stalinist bureaucracy wants peaceful coexistence with the big capitalist powers so it can carry on living off the backs of workers and peasants is spot on.
How then do you solve a problem like Korea? You could wait for North Korea to collapse of its own accord - but since the cessation of large scale Soviet aid in the 70s it has proven durable in the face of opposition without and calamity within. The Stalinist monarchy hasn't lasted as long as it has without knowing how to manage dissidence. Its lifespan, discounting war or some crisis beyond the regime's capacity to handle, could still be measured in the decades. Therefore to diffuse the situation, to prevent a flashpoint escalating into war, there has to be moves to comprehensive demilitarisation of the peninsular. As a start the North should re-sign the non-aggression pact it withdrew from with the South last week. In return the South should restart its aid and cross-border cultural exchanges. But none of this can exist independently of US action. Instead of piously calling on the North to disarm while it continues to point nuclear weapons in its direction, if Obama is serious about peace between the Koreas he should sign the non-aggression treaty the North proposed after the USSR's collapse.
With these small steps the road to a real and lasting peace could open - but will they take it?