John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: North Korea, the disaffected child

The American response is probably not helping

My dear little granddaughter is approaching the terrible age of 2. There is a painting on the wall that she can reach and she delights in knocking it awry.

She knows she will be sent to the "naughty seat" where she wails as though grievously punished until a solution is negotiated in the form of a mumbled "sorry". Then she does it again.

Is this beginning to sound like North Korea?

With up to four adults watching her at every turn she is never short of attention. So why does she do it?

Child psychology would say she is finding it fascinating to discover there are boundaries to permitted behaviour and she doesn't know yet how far she can go. Each time she gives the painting a push her parents chastise her a little more fiercely and she is sent to the seat for a bit longer.

That is all that is ever going to happen to her but she hasn't realised that yet. When she works it out, she will probably decide she has no more benefit to gain at the cost to her of a temporary withdrawal of parental affection.

A bit of child psychology might be useful in dealing with these regular outbursts from North Korea. Every time that country makes a threatening gesture to its sister in the south, the United States and China respond like different parents.

One, China, tries to keep the child close and not make too much of it. The other, Uncle Sam, put its forces on alert, stationed missile destroyers off the Korean coast and sent bombers on practice runs over the peninsula.

North Korea's latest child-leader responded by declaring war on the south and warning that any further US or South Korean "provocation" would mean "a nuclear war".

But the most interesting response this week, as usual, was in South Korea. Foreign correspondents who rushed to Seoul to do live-to-camera reports on the mounting crisis had to mention that the residents of the South Korean capital, living with a shell's range of the border, were going about their business blithely unconcerned.

A sibling often knows a troubled child better than either parent.

The two Koreas were separated at birth when China and the United States had fought themselves to a standstill in the first heated engagement of what then became a largely cold war.

They each took one of the siblings whose fortunes thereafter diverged markedly. The south became a capitalist economy and has become about 18 times richer than the north, which drifted away from China in its formative years and formed a closer bond with that lazy, liquor-sodden loser, the Soviet Union.

North Korean leaders learned everything they know from Josef Stalin and, as can happen, they clung more stubbornly to his model of behaviour than his own successors did.

Maybe it was the sight of southern prosperity just across the border that made the north so stubborn, sullen and withdrawn from the world. Maybe when they realised they'd drawn the wrong straw, that communism wasn't going to triumph and their sister had turned out to have all the luck, their resentment turned self-destructive, as it can do.

They ruled with fear, let their people starve, accepted help from China and put most of their limited resources into military hardware, even some crude median range rockets and nuclear weapons-grade material. "That'll show them - Uncle Sam and that lucky sister."

The US and South Korea, meanwhile, were not in total agreement about Uncle Sam's determination to keep his forces on the peninsula. Some in the south opposed their continued presence outright, most maintained a diplomatic deference to their old protector.

But I suspect they sense the American presence is not helping the north make its peace with them. Child psychology works on affection but a heavily guarded border constantly tells the north it has none to lose.

Like many Western reporters, I have been into the "demilitarised zone" as a guest of the US Government. It is without doubt the weirdest place in the world.

At Panmunjom, where the ceasefire was signed 60 years ago, sentries of the south and north stare fixedly at each other across 100m of open country. The South Korean soldiers strike fierce frozen poses that look like (and might be) a parody of their position.

The American military guides tell you not to make eye contact with soldiers on the other side, or stand in sight of them. The only thing you can see on the other side is a Potemkin village, a cute, brightly coloured, phoney play-town that children would enjoy.

South Korea's real worry by that time was that the North would collapse and those poor relations would descend in droves.

That is the bond that eventually will prevail.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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