Was the North Korean crisis all talk?

In a week when international headlines are so dominated by one story — in the case, the flotilla disaster — it can be easy to forget that last week’s major international crisis was never really resolved.  In the case of last week’s tensions on the Korean peninsula, what seemed like a major international incident seems ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Presidental House via Getty Images
Presidental House via Getty Images
Presidental House via Getty Images

In a week when international headlines are so dominated by one story -- in the case, the flotilla disaster -- it can be easy to forget that last week's major international crisis was never really resolved. 

In the case of last week's tensions on the Korean peninsula, what seemed like a major international incident seems to have just quieted down on its own. The whole mess is largely out of international headlines and the Korea Times reports that President Lee Myung-bak is softening his rhetoric as well:

"When we say national security, words such as confrontation or face-off tend to come to our minds. I think now is the time for us to chart a security strategy that can usher the nation into reunification," he said.

In a week when international headlines are so dominated by one story — in the case, the flotilla disaster — it can be easy to forget that last week’s major international crisis was never really resolved. 

In the case of last week’s tensions on the Korean peninsula, what seemed like a major international incident seems to have just quieted down on its own. The whole mess is largely out of international headlines and the Korea Times reports that President Lee Myung-bak is softening his rhetoric as well:

"When we say national security, words such as confrontation or face-off tend to come to our minds. I think now is the time for us to chart a security strategy that can usher the nation into reunification," he said.

Lee put priority on reunification, not confrontation, at a time when tensions are mounting on the peninsula.

Seoul also toned down the nature of the retaliatory U.N. Security Council (UNSC) measure it was seeking Wednesday by shifting its focus from opening both options of binding and non-binding measures earlier to a non-binding resolution.

The stance came a day after the Ministry of Unification eased sanctions on North Korea by allowing the shipment of four kinds of products, including garlic and garments, which were processed in North Korean manufacturing factories from North to South Korea.

The South has also put off plans to escalate its propaganda campaign by dropping leaflets and broadcasting radio messages into the North and despite earlier reports, the jointly staffed Kaesong industrial plant has remained open. The North Korean government has certainly been its usual bellicose self lately, but U.S. intelligence officials say they never actually saw any evidence of unusual North Korean troop movements. 

So what exactly just happened? It’s important to remember that the main crisis was set off not by the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan in March, but by the release of the South Korean report blaming North Korea for the sinking on May 20. With Lee’s party seeming to gain from the "Cheonan effect" in today’s local elections, it’s hard not to be a little suspicious of the timing. 

That’s not in any way to say that the incident was manufactured. The evidence that North Korea was behind the sinking of the ship is pretty compelling. But it does seem like both governments seemed to gain from the affair. Lee’s pro-American conservative party got a political boost, and Kim Jong Il got to show that he can take out a South Korean ship without serious consequences. 

As the tensions dissipate, it’s starting like these occasional blowup sare just a part of the status quo on the peninsula — happening just frequently enough to keep a certain level of tension, but never getting serious enough to involve major violence. It might not be the healthiest arrangement, but it’s one these two countries seem to have gotten used to. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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