North Korea bombards the South Korean held island of Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea, killing and wounding a number of people there. The hawks call for the strongest possible response. The pundits warn of another Korean War.

Coming just eight months after the mysterious sinking in the same area of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, blamed on North Korea and with 46 killed, we have to assume there will be fireworks.

And yet the South Korean stock-market barely budges. South Korean government officials call for calm. Do the South Koreans know something that we don’t?

A glance at a map will give you the answer. The bombarded island lies just south of something called the Northern Limit Line or NLL, which South Korea claims as the maritime border in this area.

But the NLL has no legal standing. It was imposed arbitrarily by the U.N. (read U.S.) command in 1953 at the end of the Korean War. The North Koreans never recognized it, and have since claimed their own maritime military demarcation line well to the south — which would probably have more status in international law since it is a median-line direct extension of the land frontier. Incidents in the sea area between the rival claims, with casualties on both sides, have been a constant feature ever since.

A 1999 sea battle near the same disputed island saw six North Korean warships lost or damaged, with casualties in the dozens. The latest incident is just one more to add to the list. It is also one more to add to a long list of Cold War misunderstandings where North Korea is involved.

No one can deny that the regime has behaved atrociously toward many of its citizens — gulag prison camps, enforced starvation, suppression of opinion and free speech. But then again no one should deny that the world has behaved badly toward North Korea. Its June 1950 attack into South Korea was condemned as aggression deserving the severest response.

Yet just two months later, when U.S. troops were advancing into North Korea, the U.S. representative in the United Nations was able to tell the world that: “The artificial barrier that has divided North and South has no basis for existence either in law or reason.”

So where was the aggression calling for a massive U.N. response?

In fact the division of Korea, like that NLL, had been an arbitrary decision imposed by outsiders. North Korea had just as much right to attack into the South as the South was claiming for its own planned attack against the North.

It was a civil war, possibly with a lot more justification than many other civil wars in history, including that in the United States a century earlier. And as in the U.S., if one side can win without massive outside support, the victory is usually seen as an expression of national will.

Few can doubt that the North would have won that civil war without heavy U.S. intervention.

Today it is true that we should be grateful for that U.S. intervention. It has allowed the creation of a vibrant society and economy in the South. But then again the same might have happened in the North but for that outside intervention.

Communist regimes are not committed forever to crazy economic and social policies. I visited China several times in Cultural Revolution days. Few could have foreseen then how that slogan-wracked society and clapped-out economy could make the progress we see today.

It has become de rigueur for our editorial writers to condemn the Pyongyang leadership as irrational and eccentric. But almost everyone one who meets them, leader Kim Jong Il especially, has come away impressed by their sharpness and intelligence. Even former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came away from his 2004 meeting to discuss the abductee question admitting publicly that Kim was quite rational.

So why the lack of economic progress to date?

North Korea was doing quite well for a while after the Korean War, at least when compared with the impoverished South. It then seems to have let itself get wrapped up in the kind of ideological furor that hit China twice in its post-revolution era. Contact with the outside world helped China eventually to come to its senses. North Korea has needed to do the same.

Fortunately it has begun to look to China as a model, which could explain some of its recent progress.

It would like also to be able to look toward the U.S. But its efforts in that direction, beginning back in 1994, have constantly been frustrated by U.S. hawks, and now by a Japan still indignant over the abductee issue. Ironically, some of the more expert Pyongyang watchers, including Beijing, say the North Korea’s recent bombardment and nuclear developments could well be efforts to gain U.S. attention.

But there should be some easier way to get the U.S. to listen. And a Japan rightly keen to resolve its abductee problem should move away from counterproductive confrontation policies.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat, and a Japan-based academic. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregory clark.net

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