Timely reminder on North Korea

Timely reminder on North Korea

October 27th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Some messages bear repeating because the words are too important to ignore or, worse, to forget. That's certainly the case when the comment involves North Korea. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's warning Wednesday that North Korea remains "a serious threat" in its development of nuclear arms is a case in point. The oft-repeated sentiment is not new, but it is a useful reminder about a situation inimical to U.S. -- and global -- security.

Panetta's warning was published in an opinion piece in South Korea's largest newspaper on the day of his arrival in Seoul for talks with military leaders there. The topic was the same as it has been for decades: how South Korea and its allies best can respond to North Korean provocations without escalating the long-running conflict between the nations into a shooting war rather than one of words.

That's easier said than done. For decades, the United States, Japan, China, Russia and other nations have worked patiently to find common ground between the Koreas. That effort generally has failed because North Korea either would not reach an agreement or, if it did, because it would quickly abrogate it.

Moreover, the North continues to use the threat of nuclear weapons and aggressive military acts to promote its interests. Recently, for example, North Korea has been coy about its nuclear enrichment programs. It also flexed its military muscle. Last year, it sank a South Korean naval vessel and shelled a South Korean island.

No wonder, then, that Panetta also wrote that North Korea has "demonstrated its willingness to conduct provocations that target innocent lives." He added that, "Working together, our militaries [the U.S. and South Korea] will continue to deter North Korean aggression and stand prepared to defeat the North should it ever force war upon us." That message needed to be delivered, but the quest for an amicable solution is a better option than war.

That pursuit continues. Panetta's current mission in Seoul is designed to reduce tensions. So were two-days of just concluded talks in Geneva, Switzerland, between U.S. and North Korean officials about the North's nuclear program. The discussions, designed to establish ground rules for formal negotiations on the topic, were typical of the North Korea-U.S. relationship. They didn't produce much.

A U.S. spokesman said the conversations were "very positive and generally constructive ... ." A North Korean spokesman said "big progress" was made but that there were still differences to overcome. In other words, there is still no date set for formal talks. The Korean situation -- uncertainty, threats of violence, etc. -- pretty much remains the same.

Given that, Panetta's forthright reminder about North Korea and the threat it poses is timely, indeed.