Rising Danger in Korea

Rising Danger in Korea

Bruce Cumings’s book Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations has recently appeared in paperback (Duke) and contains an extended analysis of the first nuclear crisis with North Korea a decade ago.


If the impending invasion of Iraq goes quickly and Saddam Hussein is overthrown, North Korea will soon enter American gun sights. For the past three months Pyongyang has sought to get Washington’s attention with a series of provocative moves, but the Bush Administration has so far succeeded in dragging its feet and delaying a serious response. The stage is thus set for Bush to deal with the “axis of evil” serially: first Iraq, then North Korea, then Iran. Unfortunately for Bush, however, he also faces a crisis with our South Korean ally, now led by people who seek to bring the destiny of their country under their own control.

In December the South Korean people broke decisively with the existing political system, and the elites within it who date back to the Korean War, by electing Roh Moo Hyun. Roh is a lawyer who came up the hard way: Born into a dirt-poor family that could not afford college, he schooled himself in the law and passed Korea’s notoriously difficult bar exam on his first try. In the 1980s, during the Reagan-supported dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan, Roh defended many human rights and labor activists at the risk of his own career and life. Amazingly, for presumably anti-Communist South Korea, his wife comes from a family that was blacklisted for decades: Her father was a member of the South Korean Labor Party in the late 1940s, a Communist party outlawed by the US Military Government that ruled the South then; he was arrested for allegedly collaborating with the North during the Korean War, and died in jail. Roh’s sharpest break with the past, though, is his constituency. His election was boosted mightily by a burgeoning movement among younger Koreans against the seemingly endless American military presence in the South, conducted in successive, truly massive and dignified candlelight processions along the grand boulevard in front of the US Embassy in Seoul. Routinely labeled “anti-American” by the media, these demonstrations were in fact anti-Bush–like so many others.

Since his election Roh has made clear his dissatisfaction with Bush’s policies toward the North and his desire to solve the nuclear problem through dialogue; as a consequence, initial meetings between his advance team and Bush officials last month did not go well. According to Howard French of the New York Times, insiders termed the visit “a near disaster.” One American participant told the Times, “I sense major trouble ahead in the relationship. The impression I got is that for Roh and his generation, the ultimate goal is to reunite their country and get us off the peninsula.” Korean participants in these meetings, however, thought this American reaction arose from a particular exchange: When asked what would happen if the United States unilaterally took out the North’s nuclear facilities without consulting Seoul, one of Roh’s closest advisers responded, “It would mean the end of the alliance.” And why not? What sovereign country allows a global bully to go around starting wars when its people would be the primary victims?

Roh’s inauguration on February 25 was a much less festive affair than Kim Dae Jung’s five years ago. A somber mood prevailed because of a subway disaster that had killed 198 people the week before, and because of the growing crisis with the North and the rift between Seoul and Washington. The next day I met with President Roh along with twelve other Americans for what was supposed to be a brief congratulatory get-together. Instead, three prominent Americans gathered across the table from Roh and began to lecture him on what was wrong with just about everything he had said about his position vis-à-vis the North. One of them, a former ambassador to Japan, hulked menacingly over the table, his face red and seemingly angered, telling Roh that Americans would never understand his statement that he would “guarantee the security and survival of the North,” since the American people found that regime “detestable.” Roh responded gently by saying that in solving international problems it was not necessarily the best procedure to begin by name-calling and casting all blame on one’s adversary, and abruptly ended the meeting.

Today Bush finds himself managing two very difficult relationships on the Korean peninsula, amid the rapidly building momentum toward war with Iraq. The acute danger in Korea, however, derives from a combination of typical and predictable North Korean cheating and provocation, along with Bush’s pre-emptive-strike doctrine and his loathing of Kim Jong Il. Bush seems bent on “regime change” in North Korea, too. Last August he told Bob Woodward that his preference was to “topple” the North Korean regime. According to Seymour Hersh, a participant in White House strategy meetings said of Kim Jong Il, “Bush and Cheney want that guy’s head on a platter. Don’t be distracted by all this talk about negotiations. There will be negotiations, but they have a plan, and they are going to get this guy after Iraq. He’s their version of Hitler.” The North Koreans follow these stories, of course, and in a highly unusual commentary published in February, the North Korean party newspaper stated that “it is foolish for the US to think that we will sit idle with folded arms to wait until it gives orders for a pre-emptive strike.”

In December the North began a virtual replay of the nuclear crisis that the Clinton Administration confronted a decade ago. It again kicked UN inspectors out, castigated the inspectors for being a tool of Washington, announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and said that any Security Council sanctions would be interpreted as “a declaration of war.” It has sent fighter jets ranging into the South’s air space and alongside US spy planes. But the North has stopped short of opening up 8,000 plutonium fuel rods that were frozen in a deal with Washington eight years ago, the clearest “red line” that might provoke Bush into a pre-emptive strike at the nuclear facility, and it continues to say that it wants to establish good relations with Washington.

We can expect trouble in the near term because of these grave threats of pre-emption and counter-pre-emption, and because of the chasm between Roh Moo Hyun and Bush over how to deal with North Korea. In the long run, however, the only way to solve this problem is for the United States to return to direct and meaningful talks with Pyongyang. In other words, Roh Moo Hyun’s conciliatory position is correct, and he is supported in this position by all the relevant parties: Japan, China, Russia and the European Union. It is only the Bush Administration that is isolated on how to deal with the North Korean nuclear problem. But then Bush is isolated on war with Iraq, too. Those seeking to prevent that war should redouble their efforts, because Iraq appears to presage a series of preventive wars.

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