Korean peninsula: If not on the brink of war, then what?



SEOUL, South Korea —  For a brief moment, it seemed as though the two Koreas were on the verge of another war. With both sides promising to destroy the other in case of another attack, who would doubt the crisis was anything but critical?

But it wasn’t the March sinking of the South Korean navy ship, killing 46 sailors, that pushed the peninsula over the edge. The incident faded quickly into history, with an avalanche of fairly incontrovertible evidence that North Korea was to blame.

What could possibly happen next? An attack on South Korean soil? Exactly.

The North Korean bombardment last month of hapless Yeonpyeong Island, only 7 miles south off the North Korean coast, seemed to mark the point of no return.

Here was an assault on South Korean soil, the first, it was said, since the signing of the truce that ended the first Korean War in July 1953. It was one thing for North Korean gunners to fire on a military target, but quite another to fire on a civilian village of about 1,400 people as they went about their daily lives of fishing and farming.

To the great disappointment of the journalistic hordes who flapped down on Korea post-Yeonpyeong, there is no war here.

The incident was just that, an incident. And it’s over.

Nor is it even accurate to describe it as the first assault on South Korean territory since the Korean War. North Korean special forces staged numerous small assault across the demilitarized zone, killing scores of American and South Korean troops, occasional civilians as well, in the first decade or two after the Korean War.

So, what of the current confrontation? If not a peninsula on the brink of war, then what?

In South Korea, in the United States and at the United Nations, the pressure is on to get back to business as usual.

South Korea’s opposition Democratic Party is denouncing recent war games ordered by conservative President Lee Myung-bak as “provocation.”

In Korea, the biggest story today was not the fate of the Yeonpyeong’s 1,400 former inhabitants, but the opening of a rail link from Seoul Station all the way to Incheon International Airport, enabling passengers to get to the airport in slightly more than 30 minutes as opposed to 60 to 90 minutes by bus.

The streets, sidewalks, department stores and shopping districts of the capital were jammed, with old and young pursuing holiday sales, parties, drinks and coffees against a background of brightly lit Santas and sleighs.

In the year-end hoopla, Lee’s plea for “quick and bold” military reform has receded quickly. People have heard it all before.

Lee would like people to think of the Yeonpyeong attack a wake-up call. “Military reform is necessary,” he has said more than once since scapegoating his defense minister and naming a former top general in his place.

The new minister, Kim Kwan Jin, has made sensational vows of retribution against the North Koreans if they strike again. His tough talk reached a crescendo during a brief South Korean artillery exercise last week off Yeonpyeong.

As the media swarmed on the island and South Korean F15s zoomed overhead, the North said the exercise was not worth retaliation. It said in a statement that the South Korean gunners had adjusted their targets and were not firing into North Korean waters.

The Northern Limit Line remains the reason for the bloody battles in the Yellow Sea in recent years. North Korean vessels are banned from waters below the line. Their challenge to the line is likely to go on — just not when South Koreans are primed for war.

Rather, North Korea focused on persuading New Mexico’s Gov. Bill Richardson, a repeat visitor to Pyongyang, of the need to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons. Richardson, with a CNN team and a New York Times correspondent in tow, helpfully passed along the message that North Korea would welcome U.N. inspectors to check out its new uranium plant.

The betting is the North will be ready to conduct its third underground nuclear test in the coming year, this one an explosive of enriched uranium rather than plutonium. The nuclear worries have overshadowed this week's South Korean naval exercises.

Defense Minister Kim now has to focus on negotiations. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates touches down in Seoul on Jan. 14, on a swing that will take him to Tokyo and Beijing. Then Kim will be heading to Beijing in February to see China’s defense minister, Liang Guanglie.

If they agree on nothing else, it’s going to be on the need for “stability.” China wants a stable Korean peninsula while supporting its North Korean ally with food and fuel, and conducting annual two-way trade of $140 billion with the South.

In the midst of all the talking, Korean War II will have to wait. Nobody here is much worried. It’s as though people have more important things to think about – jobs, shopping, travel, the economy, a bright New Year.

Until the next “incident,” the war story is over.