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Saturday, May 1, 2010

President Lee demonstrates cool in crisis

LOS ANGELES — It is true that there is not much that Lee Myung Bak could reasonably do, one way or the other, in response to the sinking of a South Korean naval patrol vessel in the Korean seas. But what little the president of that country has done, he has done near perfectly. This needs to be noted.

A penchant for caution around the Korean Peninsula is no little blessing. North Korea is a miserable economy of a country, but it is nonetheless a military force with which to be reckoned. It is one that includes, everyone assumes, some small speck of nuclear weaponry.

Was the ship named Cheonan attacked by the North Korean navy as it bobbed around the unofficial line on the high sea dividing Northern from Southern coastal waters? Or did the 1,200-ton, corvette-style, antisubmarine patrol ship stumble on a Korean War-era mine? Or perhaps faulty maintenance problems aboard the ship were responsible for the blast and the South Korean navy may be covering up?

But just the other day, Defense Minister Kim Tae Young declared in favor of the enemy torpedo theory. Whatever the cause, the simple fact of the matter is that on March 26 this South Korean vessel exploded. At least 40 South Korean sailors are dead — and the total will rise as more bodies are found. Almost the entire ship has now been dredged up from the ocean deep.

A thorough investigation is under way. And so the pressure on President Lee will grow. But instead of raising the perfervid temperature, he should continue to raise good questions for the military to answer and continue providing additional resources to get at the answers — and provide for better future detection and defense if it was an attack.

In such a charged atmosphere, with the story on Page One of Korean newspapers daily, it is hard to keep perspective. Imagine something comparable to this in waters off Hawaii: Faster than you can say FOX NEWS, you'd have flag-waving toward and political posturing over every conceivable military option available. Our own president would be branded as pusillanimous for preferring nonnuclear options.

South Korea's Lee had firmly established a more hawkish position toward the North than his immediate two presidential predecessors. Whatever that policy's deficiencies, on this occasion it bought him some time to think. President Lee even swallowed a bit of national pride by publicly asking for investigatory and intelligence help from the United States, which has a military force of about 28,000 stationed in South Korea. This is superior crisis management.

In parallel, the U.S. response, led by Kurt Campbell, the veteran Asian hand who has labored in the Pentagon but now plants his attache case in the State Department as an assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, has also been exemplary in its cool. This needs to be noted, too. It also needs to be noted — for those in America prepared to bomb Pyongyang tomorrow — that North Korea has not taken credit for the attack.

Why not? The North Korean economy remains in such across-the-board shambles that only a gigantic Marshall Plan type economic excavation can salvage it now. That won't happen unless some icebreaker is found to push the current Cold War-style chill in a warmer direction.

President Lee, the political conservative, is just the man to thaw out the diplomatically frigid peninsula, especially now that the incompetent North Korean regime has seen him operate coolly in crisis mode. There thus may be a silver lining in the Cheonan cloud.

In a timely public briefing by the Korean Studies Institute of the University of Southern California, a major private university here in Los Angeles, a pair of teamed experts argue that even if the North is found definitively culpable, the South has few military options.

And so, conclude USC professor David C. Kang and Leif-Eric Easley, a visiting scholar from Harvard, we need to accept that yet more of the same back-and-forth military and diplomatic counterpunching will get us nowhere.

They write: "We believe that such a 'status quo' is unsustainable for North Korea — there are simply too many factors coming to a head in the near future. South Korea and the U.S., working closely with Japan and China, need to press hard for a deal with North Korea, before more costly scenarios unfold."

They are right. No other course takes either side anywhere rational. The time now is as propitious as it will ever be. For if in fact the North did the nasty deed, the cruel incident may yet be but another example of an infantile North Korea throwing its rattle out of its playpen, as if in desperate cry for help.

What else makes sense?

Veteran journalist and columnist Tom Plate has interviewed two past South Korean presidents and has written often about the tensions on the Korean Peninsula. His recent book, "Confessions of an American Media Man," originally published in English, has recently been published in a Korean edition. © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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