The Korean chessboard

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(Host) Commentator Jim Luken reflects on Korea, Iraq and the challenge to diplomacy in a complicated world.

(Luken) In 1995, as a freelance journalist, I had the privilege of visiting Panmunjon, the strange outpost on the 38th parallel, which has separated the two Koreas for more than half a century. On the second floor of the headquarters building sits a many-windowed room with a large, rectangular conference table its only furnishing. That conference table straddles precisely the 38th latitudinal line. Since 1952, representatives from the divided Korea have sat there many times, negotiating specific issues, and diffusing an ongoing string of crises.

For us visitors from the South, the situation was almost eerie. We were permitted to walk around that table, and thus into communist North Korea for a moment. North Koreans could do the same. In some ways the strange setting illustrates the best and the worst of geopolitics. The negotiations at Panmunjon probably prevented a recurrence of full-scale war on the peninsula. But negotiators were never able to arbitrate a working model for a genuine rapprochement.

Many Koreans believe that their country was used as a pawn in the great Cold War chess game. Now, ideological posturing by the one remaining superpower finds many Koreans, furious at the Bush administration. The president’s “Axis of Evil” rhetoric, and the failure of the U.S. to provide the promised technology needed to meet North Koreas desperate energy needs, have plummeted the region into a crisis that threatens the safety of all Koreans. Not to mention the Japanese. And even U.S. citizens in Alaska and California.

The current impasse has also revealed a contradiction in U.S. policy regarding Iraq and its nuclear weapon capabilities. The U.S., while swearing that it will not negotiate in a game of nuclear blackmail, appears to be ready to deliver the promised energy system if North Korean stands down with its nuclear weapons program.

Even a casual observer can see that if diplomacy is embraced to prevent war in Asia, surely similar gestures could be applied to Iraq. North Korea’s Kim Dae Jung and Iraq’s Hussein may well be fanatical despots, but the only player in this geopolitical mess that has actually suggested the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons is the U.S.

The issue is not so much whether we would actually use these so-called “bunker busting” nuclear weapons against Korea, or in the looming war with Iraq, but that the option has been put on the table. Obviously, this policy has inspired N. Korea to move toward arming itself with weapons of mass destruction. Our own suggested use of such weapons brings the possibility of their being used (by someone) ever closer.

The strange negotiating table at Panmunjon is an ironic symbol, not only of a divided Korea, but also of the complicated diplomatic skills needed to address the various conflicts we face today. War should indeed be the very last resort. And nuclear threats should be off the table, for everyone.

This is Jim Luken from Sheffield.

Jim Luken is a writer and manages a senior living facility.

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