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Sunday, January 05, 2003

Unused article I wrote during the height of the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Not sure I'm entirely sure of everything I wrote, it's a little reliant on a single article, and I think I underestimated North Korea's ability to inflict damage in the event of US agression. Nonetheless here it is for your perusal...

Inconsistency in the “Axis-of-Evil”

Iraq denies that it has a nuclear weapons programme and allows weapons inspectors to look for evidence to prove or disprove such claims (his lack of “active co-operation” notwithstanding), however the Bush Administration seem as set on war as ever. Meanwhile in North Korea, the regime of Kim Jong Il admits that they have a nuclear weapons programme and expels weapons inspectors, yet the US talks only of “tailored containment”. To many this contradiction seems inexplicable. The attractiveness of Iraq as a target for US intervention should be obvious; it sits on the second largest proven oil stocks in the world and lies in one of the planet’s most strategically important regions. The reasons behind the reluctance to go to war with North Korea seem less obvious, but the motives should not be mistaken for a sudden attack of principles.

It is generally agreed among mainstream commentators that the reasoning behind the US’s reluctance to use force against North Korea lies in the threat North Korean artillery poses to the thousands of US troops stationed near the border and the hundreds of thousands of civilians in the area (which includes Seoul, the South Korean capital). This threat is presumably very real, but hardly unique. According to a report given by the director of the CIA, George Tenet, to Congress, there is no evidence that Iraq has any immediate desire to attack the US or its allies. He argued, however, that a US attack, particularly one which threatened Saddam himself “could trigger the very things [Bush] has said he’s trying to prevent—the use of chemical or biological weapons”. If the First Gulf War is any kind of indication he might very well use whatever weapons he had against Israel. Were Israel to retaliate with weapons from its nuclear arsenal, the result for the region could be horrific. Clearly civilian deaths, even on “our side”, are not a major factor in planning.

The logistics of preparing for and fighting two simultaneous wars is likely to be a consideration. Donald Rumsfeld recently insisted that the US was more than capable of doing so. “We are capable of winning decisively in one and swiftly defeating in the case of the other,” he said. “Let there be no doubt about it"(23/12/02). This however may be little more than hollow rhetoric. The US enjoys unparalleled military might, but its forces are not all simply awaiting a war with Iraq and are also operating throughout the world, notably in Afghanistan, the Philippines and in Central Asia, all further fronts in the “War on Terror”. The ability of the US to wage two ‘full blown’ wars while maintaining its commitments elsewhere is unclear, though I find it hard to believe the idea would be popular among those in the Pentagon who seem notably less hawkish than some of their counterparts in the Whitehouse. While deployments elsewhere are likely to be a factor in US strategic planning, political factors hinted at in the mainstream media may impose subtler, but longer lasting restrictions on the spectrum of options available to the US in dealing with Pyongyang.

It appears to me that South Korea may actually be of greater concern to the US than its Northern neighbour. Consider a front-page report by Steven R. Weisman in the International Herald Tribune (2/1/03), “South Korea has become one of the Bush Administration's biggest foreign policy problems. Years of resentment over a variety of issues are boiling over in the form of anti-American demonstrations in Seoul.” These “issues” include “the presence of 37,000 American troops on their soil” and “an incident last June, when two 14-year-old girls were run over and killed by an American armoured vehicle north of Seoul.” The US is further troubled, Weisman reported, by “pronouncements by the outgoing and incoming presidents challenging American policies on dealing with North Korea's nuclear ambitions”. “A Korea specialist with ties to many members of Bush's foreign policy team” argued that “in some ways, the problem in South Korea has become harder to handle than that of North Korea. Our first priority is to get Roh [Moo Hyn, newly elected president] and Kim [Dae Jung, outgoing president] to stop saying that the United States approach will not work. If we don't do that, the divide will get worse.” A war of course would exacerbate that divide and drive a wedge between the US and its once highly reliable client in Seoul, hardly advancing the interests of the US. Recent reports suggest concerted efforts by both the US and North Korea to convince the people of South Korea to support them over this issue. The success or otherwise of these efforts may shape the course of events on the region for years to come.

Even if there is no war, those concerned about global justice should not ignore the situation in North Korea. “Tailored containment” may not sound as nasty as “pre-emptive strike”, but this does not necessarily mean that the results in practice will be greatly different. The powerful have long known that starving a country is often much easier, and generates far less resistance, than going to war with it – as the sanctions regime on Iraq demonstrates. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) listed the issue of food aid and the refugee problem in North Korea among their “Top 10” list of the most underreported news stories of 2002. Sanctions and further economic isolation of the country can only exacerbate these problems and are likely to hit its already suffering population hard, fuelling anger against the US and very possibly strengthening the regime, George Bush claims he “loathes”.

The only real hope for peace in the region is the resumption of peace talks between Pyongyang and Seoul, ended recently in light of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons declaration (and presumably US pressure). Unfortunately Bush’s record in this area does not bode well for the future. Shortly after coming to power he did his best to scupper negotiations. According to The Guardian reporting at the time he “said bluntly he did not trust North Korea and effectively pulled the plug on détente. Pyongyang now warns that it may be forced to resume building nukes and missiles. To which Mr Bush and his hawkish advisers smilingly reply: all the more reason to build NMD!” (12/3/01). While The Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese daily newspaper, argued that “the Bush administration was concerned that a peaceful atmosphere created by a peace declaration might lead to calls for an early withdrawal of US troops from South Korea” (13/3/01). Both seem entirely plausible explanations given the political priorities of the Bush Administration, but even if untrue, interference in the best hope for peace and reconciliation between the two neighbours does not reflect well on Bush and his cronies now so intent on involving themselves in the politics of the peninsula.

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