Tension on the peninsula (but I’m not losing sleep yet)

The latest news cycle regarding Korea has been a bit worrisome.  In case you missed it, this week North Korea tested a nuclear bomb, test-fired a few short-range missiles, and threatened to attack the U.S. or South Korea.   In response, the U.S. and South Korea have raised their alert level.  These are only the most recent in a long string of events that have strained inter-Korean relations.  In 2009, North Korea has test fired a long-range missile, threatened passenger jets, and discarded recent peace agreements with the South.

It all sounds pretty bad, but with North Korea it’s hard to know when to worry.  I suppose you could say their behaviour is predictably erratic.  They increase tension, then back down.  They concede, then renege on agreements.  In 2006, they detonated their first nuclear device.  Then in 2007, they agreed to shut nuclear facilities used to refine weapons-grade fuel (in exchange for shipments of oil).  Pyongyang then proceeded to miss a string of deadlines under the agreement, eventually barring inspectors.  So maybe the most recent events are simply business as usual: plutonium-based brinkmanship, with minor concessions to come.

But maybe there is cause for worry.  As I mentioned, the news in recent months has been consistently bad.  The North has been ratcheting up regional tension, and the Lee administration in Seoul has taken a hard stance toward the North.  They have reversed the policies of the previous administration, opting for a more confrontational tone.

I’m not that concerned, however.  Nobody here seems panicked, although from the general chatter of ex-pats and Koreans alike, nobody is comfortable either.  Thankfully, the Korean Missile Crisis is still a few years off.  When newspapers discuss a nuclear detonation and a missile test on the same page, people get pretty jumpy.  I hope everyone reads this slowly, so there’s no confusion:  North Korea does not have nuclear-tipped ICBMs ready to fire.

This isn’t a huge relief.  The real barrier to developing nuclear arms is acquiring enough fissile material.  It requires an active nuclear reactor or thousands of centrifuges to refine weapons-grade fuel.  Neither of those routes is exactly subtle.  Unfortunately, North Korea has the fuel.  At this point, building a crude bomb isn’t all that challenging.

Building a compact bomb and the necessary missile system to deliver it is a lot trickier, however.  Both tests of their multi-stage missile, the Taepodong-2, have failed.  Their first nuclear test was extremely low-yield.  While atmospheric tests revealed radiation, the small size of the blast suggests a misfire of some sort.  The most recent detonation was much larger, but they are still at least a few years from having a significant nuclear deterrent.

I’ve got no solutions to this problem, but I’m willing to relax and let the experts handle it.  It does give me one more reason to question our invasion of Iraq, however.  I’m no advocate of pre-emptive war, but if the U.S. needed to force a regime change for security and humanitarian reasons, maybe Iraq was the wrong target.  If we continue on the present course, our options will be a lot more limited in a few years.

Pictures – Weekend in Hyeonri

Our friend Jose lives in Hyeonri, a rural village near Inje.  This was a long weekend for us, so we spent Friday and Saturday night with him.  We went whitewater rafting on Saturday and took a nice hike Sunday morning.

It’s a gorgeous place.  Here are some pictures:

Pictures – Gangneung Cherry Blossom Festival

These pictures are from April 10.  Erin and I rode our bikes to Gyeongpo Lake to check out the cherry blossom festival.  Enjoy!