Axis of Incoherence

The burgeoning Far East crisis has exposed the bankruptcy of US Korea policy. Kim Jong Il’s resort to nuclear threats, however deplorable, was predictable–even rational, given the hostility and bluster the Bush Administration has directed at him.

Consider: The Pentagon’s $60 billion-plus Alaska-based anti-missile defense system was sold in part on the premise that North Korea was an enemy likely to launch a missile attack. Bush added North Korea to the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address in what was more a rhetorical flourish than a considered policy judgment. In the Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, North Korea made the short list of nations that would be subject to a pre-emptive nuclear strike–a radical departure from past nuclear doctrine. Pyongyang was also stiffed out of two nuclear reactors for domestic energy needs promised in 1994 under the Clinton Administration’s Agreed Framework, and the Bush team trashed South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s policy of reconciliation of the two Koreas. And then, as Tim Shorrock reports on page 18, the Administration broke off talks after Pyongyang confessed to a nuclear enrichment program, even though North Korea reportedly offered to halt the program in exchange for a written agreement that the United States would not launch a pre-emptive attack on it. Now, Washington says it’s willing to talk–but only to discuss how North Korea plans to end its nuclear buildup.

The incoherence–or duplicity–of US policy stands revealed as Bush now reassures the world that the North Korean situation should be resolved by diplomacy, while insisting that war may be necessary to disarm Iraq, rich in oil the US covets but at best a second-rate military power that has submitted to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. Meanwhile, South Koreans are furious that Washington’s actions could expose them to North Korean retaliatory missiles, and could result in a flood of refugees.

We are left with the ambivalent hope that the Administration is so eager not to be sidetracked from its war plans against Iraq that it will allow other nations in East Asia to extricate it from the dangerous impasse. It has indicated it will support the IAEA’s attempt to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear program and should continue to work closely with South Korea and Japan, which are actively mediating between the two sides. If such efforts–and American tough talk–fail, according to the Wall Street Journal, “US officials say they are prepared to simply manage the Korean crisis for now, even if it means Pyongyang ends up resuming nuclear weapons production and building its weapons stockpile.”

The Korea crisis has also laid bare the dangerous flaws of the Bush Administration’s nuclear policy. Its antiproliferation strategy, for example, consists of a pledge to wage war on any nation threatening US nuclear supremacy. Instead, stronger nonproliferation agreements are needed, along with international aid and diplomatic efforts to reduce the number of countries, like North Korea and Iraq, that are a threat to their neighbors and potential suppliers of terrorist organizations. Also essential is a greater willingness to work with regional powers and the UN, which could help resolve conflicts in a nonmilitary way. The Korea crisis reveals that the Bush Administration’s policies have gone beyond endangering the Mideast to endangering the entire world.