The disclosure of heretofore confidential diplomatic cables and other information on the WikiLeaks site, while bad news for the United States, still pales in comparison to recent events on the Korean peninsula.
Tensions in the region are at perhaps their highest point since the armistice that ended the conflict there in 1953. As the Associated Press reported Sunday, “last Tuesday, North Korean troops showered artillery on Yeonpyeong, a South Korean-held island that houses military bases as well as a civilian population of 1,300,” killing two South Korean Marines and two civilians while wounding 18 others and reducing homes “to charred rubble.”
It’s a serious situation, one that has drawn the attention of the United States government--which has responded by increasing its naval presence in the region--along with the South Koreans, the Japanese and the Chinese, who are being pressured to get the Pyongyang government to back down from its currently aggressive military posture. Indeed China called Sunday for emergency talks that would bring the two Koreas to the negotiating table, a proposal that wire service reports said was being studied carefully in Tokyo and Seoul.
These would not, Reuters said in a dispatch, be a resumption of the six-party talks the North Koreans walked out on two years ago but would instead be focused on defusing the current level of tension.
For the moment, the politicians in Washington seem willing to let the Obama administration take the lead on handling this new crisis. Which is more than appropriate; it’s absolutely the right thing to do.
Much was made during the early days of George W. Bush’s presidency out of the way in which some Democrats--in the days before 9/11--appeared to undercut the new chief executive by openly making doubtful, even undermining comments about the administration’s foreign policy, even when the president was out of the country.
With the latest developments in Korea, President Barack Obama has a real mess on his hands, made worse by the fact that there are so many different moving parts to it that it is difficult for him to exercise much control besides the obvious effort to stand strongly by our allies in Seoul. The fact that this is happening at the same time the United States has begun a change over in government, with the U.S. House of Representatives coming under Republican control, makes it even more complicated.
Now is not the time for the GOP to break with Obama on the Korean situation. Concerns over how this whole business is being handled should be made privately, not in a press gallery of the U.S. Capitol. The old maximum that partisanship stops at the water’s edge should be observed with great care.
Part of the reason is that it is nearly impossible to divine what North Korea really wants. Does it really want war? Is it trying to coerce some form of aid from the United States and other countries in the form of food, medicine and other consumer goods that it cannot manufacture itself? Or is it simply a matter of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il laying down markers as he prepares to hand over power to his youngest son, reminding the rest of the world that he is not a man to be trifled with? It’s easy to speculate but no one really knows. Now is not the time for “cowboy diplomacy” or to try and score a few quick political points domestically against the president. It’s a time for everyone to stand, in public anyway, shoulder to shoulder, expressing a coordinated message that the United States will respond to the crisis responsibly and without a lot of irresponsible second guessing. And that means letting the White House and the State Department take the lead, something the incoming congressional Republicans should remember.