Sunshine in a Storm

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On the slopes of Mount Kumkang, at a flower-strewn conference table in Beijing, in an austere one-story building on the line between North and South Korea in the truce village of Panmunjom, storm clouds obliterated the sunshine South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung was attempting to inject into North-South relations. Again last week, the two Koreas were challenging each other in a dangerous game of one-upsmanship that neither can win. After shaking hands in a blaze of strobe lights, North and South Korean representatives in Beijing spent the next 90 minutes exchanging charge and countercharge about a shootout the week before in the Yellow Sea. The leader of the North Korean delegation, Park Yong Su, said talks would not resume until the South apologized for the incident, in which a North Korean torpedo boat was sunk, several other boats damaged and 30 North Koreans killed. The South was not about to apologize for defending waters it views as its own. (The two sides did, however, return to the table last weekend, with the South seeking to revive the original purpose for the talks--the reunion of families divided in the Korean War and aid for starving North Koreans.)

The Yellow Sea scuffle was a sharp departure from the happy doings on the east side of the peninsula in recent months. Luxury ships crammed with South Korean tourists had been docking at the North Korean port of Changjon, disgorging their passengers for walkabouts on Mount Kumkang, looming above the demilitarized zone that has divided the peninsula since the Korean War. As long as tourists could visit Kumkang, ran the litany, the doors remained open for President Kim's sunshine policy of reconciliation. Mixed signals was the operative phrase for any unpleasant noises emitted by the North.

That roseate view was shattered when the North last week detained a South Korean housewife, on a Kumkang tour with her six-year-old son, on a bizarre pretext. Min Young Mi, 36, informed by her guide that North Korean defectors to the South were executed, responded that, no, they lived well, come on down and look. Hours after her arrest as a spy, South Korea canceled the tours, fostered by Hyundai founder Chung Ju Yung, who was born and raised in a village just north of Kumkang.

The detention of the woman, like the shootout in the Yellow Sea, was an incident waiting to happen. With thousands of South Koreans on the trails of Kumkang, someone, some time, had to say something the North could seize upon. Not even the hermetically sealed walking route, shielded by barbed wire from any ordinary North Koreans curious about these well-fed apparitions from the South, could guarantee immunity. The woman's release last weekend, complete with the face-saving declaration from Pyongyang that she could have been tried as a criminal, was less than reassuring. The Kumkang incident, along with the Yellow Sea skirmish, did not just cast a shadow over the sunshine policy. It warned of a much larger event waiting to happen--an outbreak of real hostilities.

The problem with sunshine for the North is the fear in Pyongyang of exposing the weakness, corruption and failure of its ruling Úlite. The problem for the South is that happy talk promoting sunshine blinds people to the danger of a war for which no one is prepared. On the streets of Seoul, the sense is that the rebounding stock market signals the return of good times. Battles at sea, talks in Beijing, suspension of tours--all seem far removed from booming markets and upbeat boardrooms.

The United States is even less prepared. President Bill Clinton and his cabinet had little to say last week about trouble in Korea. In two hours of talks with a crusty North Korean general at Panmunjom, a newly arrived American general, Michael Dunn, got nowhere suggesting ways for everyone to be sure to stay on the proper side of the imaginary line in the Yellow Sea.

Conservatives in the South Korean National Assembly and the U.S. Congress have long opposed aid for North Korea. But are these hard-liners ready for the ultimate incident: the dare and double-dare that triggers guns massed on each side of the DMZ? As American warships hove into Korean waters, the question was more than hypothetical. Suddenly the stakes were raised on the Korean peninsula, and the pendulum of potential conflict shifted from the Balkans back to Northeast Asia. The risk was not that of North Korean nukes or missiles but of an old-fashioned shoot-'em-up along Asia's most heavily armed frontier. The bait of massive aid compelled the North nearly five years ago to stop building a nuclear warhead, but few figured on conventional war, up close, personal and potentially as deadly. Ace U.S. negotiator Charles Kartman, meeting a North Korean diplomat in Beijing to talk about the results of a meaningless inspection of a cave suspected of harboring the North's nukes, now had a real threat to paper over. Slick diplomacy would be needed on all sides--South and North Korea, the U.S., even China, North Korea's last ally--to keep the adversaries from stumbling blindfolded into much more than another exercise in diplomatic dueling.

Donald Kirk is an author and journalist living in South Korea

A tense naval standoff in the Yellow Sea may be Pyongyang's way of strengthening its leverage before talks with Seoul