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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 4)

All News 07:05 January 04, 2023

Dangerous escalation
It's time to stop 'strong vs. strong' confrontation

South Koreans are known for being -- or appearing -- insensitive to the threat of war. People in other countries are often amazed that people here go about their business as usual despite bellicose rhetoric from North Korea.

It is not because Koreans are particularly fearless, but more that they cannot imagine the possibility of repeating the fratricidal catastrophe of 73 years ago.

Recently, they began to sense the possibility could be genuine, if in limited ways.

On the final day of 2022, North Korea's Kim Jong-un called for an "exponential increase" in nuclear weapons, calling South Korea an "undoubted enemy." Kim said the North's multiple rocket launcher (MRL) system has the entire South Korea in its range as a "key offensive weapon" of its military forces.

What could the young North Korean leader's wild vitriol imply? It might reflect Kim's confidence in what he propagandized as "paralleled progress" in nuclear and economic capabilities. Or, he might have just been encouraged by the new Cold War. Perhaps Pyongyang felt the existential threat from the solidifying trilateral alliance of Seoul, Washington and Tokyo. Or all of these.

The primary reason may be the "South's betrayal," as Kim sees it.

The center-of-left Moon Jae-in administration tried not to agitate the North. Still, the right-wing Yoon Suk Yeol government is more about an eye for an eye, moving closer to the U.S., North Korea's professed archenemy. Pyongyang had long said its atomic weapons were aimed at America, not South Korea. But direct nuclear threats against the South only reveal the North's pretense and desperation.

What's happening on the Korean Peninsula seems to confirm that the hardliners are right: North Korea aimed to be a nuclear power, and no amount of dialogue can prevent it. Yes, the conservatives are correct now, but they were wrong a few decades ago. Likewise, the progressives, who said the North's atomic weapons program was to defend itself from the only country to have used atomic bombs in warfare, were right before but wrong now. Time changes everything, and everything is relative, always moving.

At stake is what Seoul should do now.

Keeping peace by preventing war on this divided peninsula is "not an option but an obligation," as President Yoon says whenever he describes some crucial missions. This is the time to make possible, or at least more likely, what appears to be impossible. In this three-way game of pull and push, Seoul has always been the primary party that found a breather from a deadlock. The U.S., bent on keeping China in check, can hardly be more indifferent, shifting from strategic patience to "strategic neglect."

Yoon could learn from two of his conservative predecessors -- Park Chung-hee and Roh Tae-woo.

The two generals-turned-presidents surprised everyone by finding a breakthrough in the deadlocked inter-Korean relationship when everybody thought it impossible. In 1972, Park sent his spy chief to Pyongyang to secure the first inter-Korean agreement. Roh, a seemingly characterless leader, did more than any of his successors by conducting his "Nordpolitik" policy, normalizing ties with China and Russia and realizing the two Koreas' simultaneous admission to the United Nations.

What made these possible was that both ex-presidents were conservative leaders, free from criticism from South Koreans who were averse to communists. In contrast, three leftist leaders -- Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon -- were constantly put on hold by inter-Korean hawks from within and out.

This is no time for Yoon to be mired in a tit-for-tat escalation of verbal exchanges, giving only excuses to his North Korean counterpart for further provocations. The only way the political novice can leave his legacy is to keep the two Koreas from getting further away from each other in this age of individual survival globally, leaving the era of globalization behind. The reunification of the Koreas may take a long time, but should remain intact as the final goal of all Koreans.

Koreans will get no international sympathy if they let this peninsula become a global battlefield for the second time in 70-odd years.

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