There are changes afoot on the Korean peninsula, but it doesn't seem like any grand change in the overall situation.
On the Southern side, the US has once again pledged to defend South Korea, going so far as to say that South Korea is under the US nuclear umbrella. I'm not sure anyone really doubted that fact, but having the SecDef say it definitely gives it more oomph. More important was the side-by-side agreement Gates and ROK Defence Minister Kim Tae-Yong showed. At the same time, the timetable for full ROK command of its own forces in wartime is still on track for 2012. This is great news for the Korean state, which has long felt slighted by the provisions of previous agreements that put ROK forces under the command of the US, but I have to admit to some slight worry over C&C issues should war break out at that point. I'm hoping that the US and ROK forces are strongly putting together all the joint-planning systems they will need to coordinate.
More importantly, however, in that same article SecDef Gates says that the US and ROK forces are planning for what is probably the likeliest scenario, a full break-down in internal order in DPRK. There were no details, but I'm glad to know that our leaders have realized how likely that is, and how deleterious.
This is especially important now that the succession plans in DPRK are apparently becoming more dicey. Apparently Kim Jong-Il is not happy with how his son, Kim Jong Eun has been handling his responsibility over the military. Moreover, North Korean officials who visited South Korea several months ago to attend the late President Kim Dae Jung's funeral were exceptionally solicitous, and took a harangue by President Lee Myung-bak very courteously, promising to try to stop northern provocations.
This worries me, in some ways. A strong North Korea could be disastrous, particularly if it decided it was strong enough to attack South Korea. On the other hand, a very weak North Korea could collapse entirely. Moreover, North Korea is not East Germany; I don't think it will meekly accept merger with South Korea on its own terms, at least not with the Kim family in charge. This is a monarchy, not a Communist country, and so the preservation of the monarchy becomes vastly more important. There is no way for a "new generation" of leaders to come in except through a literal dynastic change, and then that leader will have more interest in the preservation of that system than a man who worked his way up from the ground floor. (Yes, this is an argument based on constructed identity, not raw power. So sue me.) While there have been kings who have liberalized, I'm not sure it will be possible in North Korea without unleashing a tidal wave, ending in the dissolution of the DPRK and the rest of the world picking up the pieces.
This is what will be unleashed on the region. I know that merely being polite does not mean that North Korea is weak, but along with rumors of succession issues on top, it makes me worry. It also makes me doubly glad that Gates and Kim Tae-yong are working on that issue now.