Obama Faces Same Korean Minefield as His Predecessors

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Tensions on the Korean peninsula have bedeviled 12 presidents, and the latest is no exception.

Even before today's North Korean attack on a South Korean island, the despotic, hermetic regime had been a persistent problem for Barack Obama, just as it had been for his many post-World War II predecessors.  

Last week, North Korea revealed a nuclear enrichment facility to a group of American scientists it had invited to its largely isolated country. While American officials had known Pyongyang was working on improving its enrichment capabilities--essential for the production of more advanced nuclear weapons--Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that the U.S. hadn't known the regime had gotten that far.

When you combine the country's display of nuclear ambition with what appears by all accounts to be an aggressive and unprovoked attack on the South today, the White House is left in a conundrum. How do you handle a country that has tested nuclear devices, has one of the world's largest militaries, and won't seem to listen to reason? So far, the Obama White House hasn't been able to find any answer better than to muddle through.

A slew of diplomatic activity is sure to come in the following days, including close coordination with the countries involved in the six-party nuclear talks--China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, as well as the U.S. and North Korea itself. Reuters is already reporting that the U.N. Security Council could hold an emergency meeting in the next day or two. Obama, like George W. Bush, realizes that his influence is limited with the desperately poor North Koreans and is best leveraged through China and Japan, who have more trade and currency ties with the regime.

If American diplomatic options are few, its military options even fewer. No one seriously believes the U.S. is in a position to strike North Korea, a regime with more than 1 million soldiers under arms, nuclear devices, and long-range missiles. One reason for caution: With its population of over 12 million, Seoul is just 190 kilometers from North Korea and within easy striking distance for the Communist regime.With few options at hand, Obama's not really in a position to reap any political benefit from the showdown.

Indeed, of all the presidents who have dealt with North Korea, only Dwight Eisenhower saw any political gain from conflict on the disputed peninsula. Just a few weeks after he was elected in 1952, and before he was sworn in, Eisenhower traveled to Korea and a few months later oversaw an armistice, although never a full peace treaty, for a war that had killed more than 36,000 Americans since it began in 1950. Ike was able to fulfill a campaign promise to end the war.

But Eisenhower's gain was the exception that proved the rule. Harry Truman faced a political firestorm over firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur after disagreements prosecuting the Korean War. Historians have widely saluted Truman's triumph of civilian over military authority, but at the time MacArthur was revered and even addressed a joint session of Congress. After his firing, MacArthur was considered a strong potential challenger to Truman in 1952. (MacArthur never ran that year following a report from the Republican-controlled Senate that bolstered Truman's case and Truman himself declined to seek reelection.) The Korean War was one reason Truman couldn't seek a second full term and left office unpopular, even if his stock would rise in later years.

In 1968, North Korea captured an American naval vessel, the Pueblo, and held its crew for more than a year and never returned it--adding to Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam woes. In 1976, a slew of North Korean soldiers attacked United Nations troops with crowbars and axes, killing two American soldiers and adding to Gerald Ford's woes. Jimmy Carter's plans to reduce troops on the peninsula never saw fruition, and he wound up in a kerfuffle with the right after he fired Gen. John K. Singlaub, who criticized his decision.

In 1998 North Korea fired a missile over Japan, dramatically escalating tensions in the region. In the 1990s, its nuclear program was revealed and the Clinton, Bush, and Obama regimes have been unable to reverse its progress, although at times they've slowed it.  That, it seems, is about the best presidents have been able to do. 

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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