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Korean peninsula: If not on the brink of war, then what?

Analysis: In Seoul, the pressure is on to get back to business as usual.

In the year-end hoopla, Lee’s plea for “quick and bold” military reform has receded quickly. People have heard it all before.

Lee would like people to think of the Yeonpyeong attack a wake-up call. “Military reform is necessary,” he has said more than once since scapegoating his defense minister and naming a former top general in his place.

The new minister, Kim Kwan Jin, has made sensational vows of retribution against the North Koreans if they strike again. His tough talk reached a crescendo during a brief South Korean artillery exercise last week off Yeonpyeong.

As the media swarmed on the island and South Korean F15s zoomed overhead, the North said the exercise was not worth retaliation. It said in a statement that the South Korean gunners had adjusted their targets and were not firing into North Korean waters.

The Northern Limit Line remains the reason for the bloody battles in the Yellow Sea in recent years. North Korean vessels are banned from waters below the line. Their challenge to the line is likely to go on — just not when South Koreans are primed for war.

Rather, North Korea focused on persuading New Mexico’s Gov. Bill Richardson, a repeat visitor to Pyongyang, of the need to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons. Richardson, with a CNN team and a New York Times correspondent in tow, helpfully passed along the message that North Korea would welcome U.N. inspectors to check out its new uranium plant.

The betting is the North will be ready to conduct its third underground nuclear test in the coming year, this one an explosive of enriched uranium rather than plutonium. The nuclear worries have overshadowed this week's South Korean naval exercises.

Defense Minister Kim now has to focus on negotiations. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates touches down in Seoul on Jan. 14, on a swing that will take him to Tokyo and Beijing. Then Kim will be heading to Beijing in February to see China’s defense minister, Liang Guanglie.

If they agree on nothing else, it’s going to be on the need for “stability.” China wants a stable Korean peninsula while supporting its North Korean ally with food and fuel, and conducting annual two-way trade of $140 billion with the South.

In the midst of all the talking, Korean War II will have to wait. Nobody here is much worried. It’s as though people have more important things to think about – jobs, shopping, travel, the economy, a bright New Year.

Until the next “incident,” the war story is over.