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Tensions Get Hot in the Koreas

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, Dec. 17, 2002, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Tensions are hot and getting hotter on another front besides Iraq. North Korea is threatening to refresh its stash of weapons-grade plutonium. That is making the U.S. military presence in South Korea even more critical to stability not only on the Korean peninsula but throughout all of Asia.

So why are there all these negative vibes from the South Korean man on the street, and why are folks in the South making us, Americans, feel so unwelcome?

Joining me now to provide some insights into this Korean dilemma, Dr. Larry Wortzel, director of the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for International Relations.

So Dr. Wortzel, I was startled the other day to see a picture in The New York Times of a cafe in South Korea with a big sign in English in the window that said, "Americans not welcome here."

How did we get on the bad list in the nation we have been protecting for 50 years now?

DR. LARRY WORTZEL, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Well, we became part of the issue in the presidential election in Korea, John. Neither candidate was as negative about the United States as were the Germans in the German election. We were the issue. That was a very negative campaign. That was an anti-American campaign.

In this instance, there was a very tragic accident where two young South Korean girls were killed by an American armor vehicle at about the same time as the election. And Korean hopes that North Korea and the engagement policy would succeed really crashed, because North Korea ended up with this new nuclear program.

So it's a very emotional situation. I think Korean leaders did not choose to make that their stand in the election, because of the election. I think you'll see a little turnaround in the months after the election.

GIBSON: Well, right. But this is a nation that has been protected by 37,000 American troops since the Korean War, which ended almost 50 years ago. Why should America maintain a commitment to extend ourselves like this, be within the range of North Korean nuclear weapons, and go off base to find the people we're protecting hate us? What is the point of staying?

WORTZEL: It serves American interests to have a forward presence out there in Northeast Asia. That peninsula has been the site of wars for nine centuries, but certainly heavy warfare during the 20th century. If the United States presence wasn't there and wasn't in Japan also, by the way, I think you would see a complete nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia...

GIBSON: OK, well, let me put it this way. North Koreans are back to building their bomb, and that is clear. They're making no bones about it. America is upset about it for obvious reasons, and so is Japan. Why isn't South Korea as upset as the White House?

WORTZEL: South Korea has 20 million people within artillery range of the North Korean border, and they know they'd all be dead in a matter of days if a war started there. So the fact that that might happen in hours instead of days doesn't register as great a shock with the South Korean population. They live with that.

GIBSON: Yes, but does the fact that they've lived with it so long mean that they are more willing to appease North Korea, to accept North Korea's lies, to let them go on with their nuclear program, than we are so far away?

WORTZEL: I think we have a real diplomatic dilemma with them. They clearly are more attached and emotional. Some of them still have families up there…

Remember, the Korean War did not end. Right now, there's an armistice. That force in Korea is a United Nations command, and there are still 16 United Nations command members who fought that Korean War over there.

So there is an alliance there. South Korea is part of that alliance. But the president said he would prefer to dissolve it through diplomatic and economic means. I think that can be done. But as the secretary of defense said, the United States has the capability, if it must do it, to solve it militarily.

GIBSON: And fight two wars at once?

WORTZEL: And fight two wars at once... or consecutively.

GIBSON: ... are the North Koreans likely to take that as seriously as it was meant to be taken?

WORTZEL: I think they will. I think more importantly, Japan will take it seriously because if the United States security guarantees and the alliance with Japan and South Korea aren't taken seriously, you're going to see a nuclear-armed Japan. So as I said, our interests are served by maintaining that forward presence.

GIBSON: Larry Wortzel, director of the Heritage Foundation's Davis project, Davis Institute for International Relations. Larry, thanks very much.

WORTZEL: Happy to be here.

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