Published January 01, 2003
Quick: Name a world figure who within the last few decades has successfully plotted the blowing up of passenger aircraft, the killing of another country's cabinet officials, the murder of his own people, and the acquisition of nuclear-weapons materials to carry out mass destruction.
Kim Jong Il is the right answer, though readers can be forgiven for thinking Usama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein.
The North Korean communist is sitting pretty compared to those two. Unlike them, Kim has been able to pursue his deadly goals with very few constraints from the world community -- most recently by announcing the restarting of equipment, and switching-off of U.N. surveillance cameras, at a nuclear reactor from which he has in the past drawn weapons-grade fuel.
And unlike Saddam or bin Laden, there's little sign that Kim will face a toughened response from the U.S. anytime soon.
Clearly, the U.S. is in profound need of a revamped Korea policy.
U.S. inaction on the peninsula is particularly frustrating when one considers the developments of recent weeks: First, North Korea has begun a round of nuclear blackmail with the U.S. and South Korea that shows every sign of being a replay of 1993-94, when the regime pressured the U.S. into giving it billions of dollars in food and energy aid -- and returned the favor by secretly continuing its nuclear-weapons program.
The new round begs the question of whether the U.S. learned nothing from that early-90s experience.
Second, North Korea's delivery this month of missiles to Yemen is a reminder of the country's foremost position among the world's arms proliferators. It throws wide open the speculation on how free Kim Jong Il is to arm, assist and harbor whomever he wishes, including, presumably, terrorists from the Islamic world.
Third, North Korea's neighbor to the south -- perennially torn between its fears of Pyongyang and its frustrations with Washington -- is doing its level best to dig its head in the sand. The South has just elected as president Roh Moo Hyun, a left-leaning dissident who campaigned on a platform dominated by a "sunshine policy" toward North Korea and a "where the sun don't shine" policy toward the U.S. presence on the peninsula. In addition to these developments, there's the horrifying fact that North Korea's Stalinist cadres have run their country into the grave, starving to death an estimated three million people in the last decade.
Washington's muteness is typically explained with the pat response that the administration is too preoccupied with Iraq to focus on North Korea. But in truth, the reasons for U.S. hesitancy on the Korean peninsula will continue long after military intervention in Iraq is completed. Among the reasons:
South Korea is in denial: The newly industrialized country, jealously guarding its economic prosperity and reeling at the pricetag of German-style reunification, is as afraid of having to absorb an imploded North Korea as it is of having North Korea attempt to absorb it. Seoul is therefore paralyzed, never exiting a zone of baby steps toward symbolic rapprochement with the North, and baby tantrums at any suggestion of regime change or a tighter military noose for North Korea.
This month's election of pro-North Roh -- with seemingly blind disregard of the North's rising belligerency -- is a perfect illustration of the South Korean inability to respond to escalation with countervailing escalation, and its instinctual recalcitrance at the wrong target, such as its ally the U.S.
South Korea is immensely vulnerable: The country, and particularly Seoul with its 12 million residents, would, under all military scenarios, suffer the brunt of a confrontation with the North, even if the North were defeated quickly. That's because North Korea's one million troops are poised to try to take the border-area capital within 48 hours. Even if they didn't take the capital they could from the opening minutes of the war shell it and fire missiles at it.
And even if the North's regime were pushed from power it could use, in a last-ditch attack, the nuclear weapons it is believed to already possess.
South Korea's neighbors are obstacles to change: Japan and China have less interest in solving the Korea problem than the U.S. does. Japan was permanently shaken when the North fired a missile over its coastline in August, 1998, and cooperates partially with the U.S. in implementing security policy on the peninsula.
But Japan may ultimately prefer a divided Korea, even with a continued Northern threat, to a unified one: A strong Korea would harbor deep resentments toward its former imperialist overlords in Tokyo and -- what's worse -- could seriously challenge weak Japan's economic pre-eminence in Asia.
As for China, it may be wary of a nuclear-armed, unstable state to its immediate south, but at the same time it has an interest in the status quo, which keeps 37,000 U.S. troops holed up on a divided peninsula. If the U.S. troops were based elsewhere in the region, or free to leave the DMZ, they'd be far less constrained should any conflict arise between China and Taiwan.
As a result, every possible U.S. response to North Korea seems bound up in a high probability of bad outcomes: Bomb North Korea's reactors and there's a real risk of triggering a North Korean attack, with bloodier consequences for Americans and South Koreans than the U.S. has seen since Vietnam. Or risk earning for the U.S. a difficult moral burden if North Korea didn't react, simply moved its weapons development elsewhere and left its people to suffer, untreated, the horrors of radiation leaks that could result from the U.S. bombing. (The latter scenario is mitigated by the analysis of past defense officials who believe that radiation leakage could be avoided in a bombing campaign.)
Alternately, if the U.S. isolated North Korea, discontinued all dialogue and aid to the regime, and plotted the overthrow of Kim's regime, it would run the risk that Kim will let millions more of his citizens starve to death while protecting his cronies. It would also run the risk that South Korea, Japan and China would resist, or even subvert, the containment policy.
Worse than these outcomes, however, is continued U.S. captivity to a policy of hand-wringing inaction. Worse, also, would be a repeat of the Clinton appeasement of 1993-94, which resulted in the continued buildup of North Korea's military program and the continued, deliberate starvation of the North Korean populace. Taking such a path would simply put the South Korean people and U.S. troops even more deeply into the clutches of the tin-pot totalitarian in Pyongyang, with all the risk of nuclear attack, and potential future cooperation with terrorists, that that entails.
Repeating negotiations with Pyongyang would also be an endorsement, by an administration of former Cold Warriors, of a continued communist reign of terror. And it's that parallel that should give the Bush administration pause. Surely, the risks on the Korean peninsula -- of nuclear catastrophe and economic and human devastation in the South -- are not as profound as were the risks of economic and human devastation in Europe and nuclear catastrophe worldwide that the U.S. faced when considering how to deal with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. In that instance, the U.S. largely ignored European bellyaching about its proximity to the Soviet bear, dealing with real concerns where possible and otherwise pressing ahead with containment, deterrence, support for dissidents, and the rollback of the Red Army in Afghanistan.
The U.S. needs to respond to North Korea's aggressive moves with the might and determination it showed in the Cold War. In the near term, Washington should isolate the regime completely, and use all its cards, including the threat of pulling out of the peninsula, to press Japan and South Korea hard to come onboard. It should also build up a credible threat of bombing North Korea's reactors, and develop a plan for the overthrow of the Pyongyang regime. By applying greater effort to the problem, Washington may find a good solution.
After all, it's hard to believe that there aren't more ways to bring down pipsqueak North Korea than there were ways to bring down the 20th century's globally threatening Soviet regime.
Melana Zyla Vickers, a columnist for TechCentralStation.com, is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. She is a former editorial-board member of USA Today, Canada's The Globe and Mail and The Asian Wall Street Journal, and a former editor at the Far Eastern Economc Review. She has a master's degree in strategic studies and economics from Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.