South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, 68, selected the museum-like War Memorial of Korea as the background for his blood, sweat and tears speech. The memorial, an enormous stone tomb near the Defense Ministry in the South Korean capital Seoul, is filled with relics of the Korean War between North and South Korea, a bloody conflict that claimed 4 million lives between 1950 and 1953.
Another curiosity could soon be on display at the museum: parts of the wreckage from the Cheonan, the South Korean warship that broke in two and sank after an explosion on March 26 in the Yellow Sea.
No More Blackmail
The message was clear: The torpedo attack by the north, which would normally be seen as a declaration of war, was at the very least one provocation too many. The south, Lee said, no longer intended to react helplessly to attacks from the north, nor would it continue to submit to perpetual blackmail by the regime and its "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, who considers himself to be godlike and infallible. If the conservative Lee has his way, all the minor incidents in the Yellow Sea along the maritime border between the two countries, which is not recognized by the north, all the threatening military gestures and the testing of new missiles will have consequences in the future.
The conciliatory "Sunshine Policy" toward the north which was pursued by Lee's predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun is over for good. It helped protect the Kim dynasty's Stalinist regime against an uncontrolled collapse.
But for the North Koreans, merely the announcement that South Korea's patience is now at an end constituted a "declaration of war." The response came quickly, when Pyongyang threatened to fire at the oversized loudspeakers Lee intends to install at the border between the two countries. For the first time since 2004, Seoul plans to blare propaganda touting the blessings of democracy and capitalism for several kilometers into the realm of the Kims, regaling the North Koreans with hour after hour of news about the latest crimes of their Dear Leader.
In return, Pyongyang announced that it intended to curtail trade with the south and that it would consider closing Kaesong, a capitalist enclave near the border, where roughly 40,000 subjects of dictator Kim Jong-il make shoes, clothing and other inexpensive goods for South Korean companies. On Monday, North Korea said, in a message delivered through South Korean businessmen, that it wanted to keep Kaesong going, however.
The World Holds Its Breath
Tensions have been ratcheted up to their highest level in years. Late last week, Pyongyang cut off important hotlines to the south designed to prevent unwanted armed conflicts. Seoul promptly raised the alert level for its troops and its warships began maneuvers in the Yellow Sea, where they practiced hunting down North Korean submarines and tested anti-submarine bombs.
Once again, the Koreans have the rest of the world holding its breath. The global financial markets took an increasingly nervous view of the Far East, with stock prices falling on markets from Tokyo to Singapore and the South Korean won dropping to its lowest rate against the dollar in eight months.
In no other place on Earth do the conflicting interests of three major powers -- the United States, China and Russia -- as well as those of economic giants Japan and South Korea, collide as sharply as they do on the 38th parallel. What makes the situation so unpredictable is that, ever since Kim Jong-il ordered another nuclear test conducted a year ago, the fear now is that his military possesses nuclear weapons and could possibly use them. In addition, Seoul, a city of 20 million people, lies within the range of North Korean artillery. A single shot could trigger an unstoppable catastrophe.
Last week, the major powers looked on helplessly as the conflict escalated between Pyongyang and Seoul. "The north and the south are rushing toward each other like two trains on the same track," warned former South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon of the opposition Democrats. Neither side can deviate from its position without losing face. If Lee backed down, the threats he has made so far would seem ridiculous. And if Kim issued an apology for the torpedo attack, as Seoul is demanding, he would undermine his regime's authority.