[Letters] President Obama should visit South Korea

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[Letters] President Obama should visit South Korea

North Korea’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island means war, in the sense that the Korean War has never really ended, despite the 60 years gone by since fighting began. The war was put on hold through an armistice, but there has never been a comprehensive peace treaty. South Korean and United States policies must reflect this reality.

Flurries of somewhat flustered diplomatic activity, which resonate in the media, have become standard reaction to North Korean provocations. The sinking of a South Korean naval corvette at the start of the year further heightens tension.

In the current atmosphere, relying on diplomatic responses alone, or even as the priority, is clearly naive. Rather, a more aggressive response is required, coordinated by Seoul and Washington.

First, President Barack Obama should visit South Korea, and make a very public and explicit trip to the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas. In very practical political terms, U.S. opinion polls have shown consistently since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that the Republicans are viewed as the more effective and reliable party in the realm of national defense and security. Obama has reinforced this image in various ways. For example, one of his first acts as president was the removal of a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.

During the 1952 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower vowed to go to Korea.

He did so and secured the Armistice Agreement soon after his inauguration, and initiated a comprehensive plan for Korean recovery and economic development. The personalities and circumstances involved are very different, but the imagery of the earlier incident could impress Pyongyang with the determination of governments in both Seoul and Washington.

Second, the Republic of Korea retains distinctive advantages for leverage in dealing with the North Korean regime. The international financial crisis and recession have affected South Korea along with all other major industrial countries. Nonetheless, the extraordinary economic success of the nation remains grounded on a very substantial manufacturing foundation.

Deterring North Korea should be explicitly based on a comprehensive strategy, including but reaching well beyond military dimensions. Seoul has just finished hosting the latest G-20 Summit, reinforcing the economic strength of the nation and the importance of this global economic organization. For the first time, a Korean Secretary-General leads the UN. The Republic of Korea Army is rightly respected as a formidable military force.

A visit by President Obama could be held to reinforce each and all of these points.

Another Korean war would devastate the peninsula once again, and this reality must give the North pause. The violent incidents of this year may reflect factional infighting, with no single group fully in charge. Reaffirming the South Korea-U.S. partnership and the Republic of Korea’s comprehensive strengths should be the highest priority, not diplomacy as usual.


Arthur I. Cyr,

the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and the author of “After the Cold War”

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