The raging debates over how to end Iran's nuclear threat have relegated North Korea's program to the background. Then a February 27 Voice of America article announced this year's upcoming joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The most striking thing about the article isn't the talk of North Korean intensified saber-rattling. This is something we've come to expect. No, the most strking thing is the picture of protesting South Koreans. They don't want these drills, they want peace. And the most surprising thing of all is that recent agreements between the U.S. and North Korea may be steps towards getting it. But until talk becomes action and South Korea becomes involved I would continue the exercises to demonstrate U.S. solidarity with the South as we work to improve relations with the North.
North Korea needs food and its late leader Kim Jong Il knew it. So he put in motion negotiations to exchange "nukes for food," to obtain food for North Korean children in exchange for resuming UN inspection of nuclear facilities. This exchange has been agreed to in principle, although logistics remain to be defined. In a second sign of easing tensions, the U.S. is permitting North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to attend an upcoming security conference sponsored by the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Foreign Affairs.
Still there remain causes for concern. Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Un, is the new North Korean leader, and must implement the agreements his father negotiated. He is believed to be in his 20s and while his country's power structure is considered stable, his level of preparedness for this task is unknown. Neither food nor inspectors will head for North Korea until Kim Jong Un or his designates work out distribution and inspection logistics with U.S. negotiators.
Even if this deal works perfectly, it's still between the U.S. and North Korea. South Korea is not involved. Therein lies the key to peace. Until the two Koreas can face each other at the negotiating table and agree to some sort of merger or peaceful coexistence, tension will reign on the penninsula, military alertness will be necessary, and the U.S. will play an active role. For as long as that role is necessary, U.S. forces must be present to demonstrate our solidarity with South Korea even as we try to mend fences with the North. It is a difficult diplomatic and military tightrope to walk, but to resolve the Korean matter in a way most beneficial to all, walk that tightrope we must.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons