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Does Bush Want War with North Korea?




March 21, 2001

LONDON - It is hard to watch the most sensible foreign policy of the Clinton Administration being crumpled before our eyes. Particularly so when it is being done for the most malevolent of reasons- to resurrect an enemy that had decided to make its peace with America, so that the advocacy of missile defence for America could be seen to be based on a real rogue missile threat rather, than as hitherto, a make believe one.

President George Bush is being given the benefit of the doubt with his new hard line policy towards North Korea, even as he overrides his more far-sighted Secretary of State, Colin Powell. General Powell had tried to get it on to the record, before the Gang of Two, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, could bend the novice president's ear back towards the dark ages, that the Bush Administration intended "to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off". It is not to be, says Bush. Already his policy of distrust has led to the indefinite postponement by the North Korean leader Kim Jong il of his planned trip to South Korea.

Yet how aware is Mr Bush how dark the age was before ex-president Jimmy Carter flew into Pyongyang and rescued president Bill Clinton from a nose to nose confrontation that could have easily slipped into a new Korean war, with the Pentagon telling Clinton it might lead to 50,000 American dead?

At the time it seemed that the evidence was incontrovertible that North Korea had nuclear weapons, was building more and developing the rockets to carry them as far as Alaska. Now seven years later we can be fairly sure that while it is possible North Korea has plutonium sufficient for one or two nuclear weapons, it is not increasing its stock of plutonium and its rockets, even if they can reach Alaska, are not powerful enough to carry a nuclear payload. The Carter-Clinton deal did bring about a freeze in North Korean nuclear weapons development in return for the commitment to build two nuclear power stations for the country and an end to the long-standing economic embargo. In fact the Clinton administration, whilst moving ahead with South Korea and Japan to construct the civilian power stations, was extraordinarily lethargic about lifting sanctions. Indeed, Mr Clinton only seemed to engage with matters Korean when they were on the edge of the precipice. Yet looking back it was perhaps his greatest foreign policy success. He pulled some nuclear teeth without the painful necessity of military dentistry.

It is a pity he never fully appreciated what he had done. But the Republican foreign policy thinkers did. Always more gung-ho on developing America's own land-based system of missile defence, they knew that the only good case they could cite to prove the necessity for it was North Korea. It is not supposed to break the old time Mutual Assured Destruction relationship with Russia. It is not supposed to neutralize China's deterrent, although it will, since China is not an official "enemy". It can't be used to justify whatever ambitions Iran might have for nuclear weapons since the hostility of now democratic Iran towards the "Great Satan" is much diminished. As for Iraq, thanks to the war, the UN dismantling of its nuclear establishment and the current tight military embargo, Saddam Hussein is light years away from developing long distance rockets with nuclear warheads. Thus it is only North Korea that can even lend the thin veneer of an argument to this cause so dear to the hearts and minds of those in the Republican administration that temperamentally find it hard to live without a military crusade. And they have behind them the might of the powerful lobby of the U.S. arms industry for which a project of this magnitude promises profits and jobs for decades to come.

In June last year South Korea's peace-minded president, Kim Dae jung, travelled North to meet his counterpart, Kim Jong il, in what was by any stretch of the imagination an historic summit. It has set the ball rolling on rapprochement between the two halves of the peninsular, making all manner of difficulties for U.S. foreign policy at large in eastern Asia. A counterpart to Korean pride at the summit's achievements has been a rise in anti-American sentiment in the South. No longer confined to left wing students, mainstream opinion is beginning to wonder about the value of a continued American military presence.

But the ripples run further out that this. Japan that has for long stood four square behind the American military presence in East Asia is now beginning to ask, if there is no longer a need to deter a North Korean attack then is it necessary to have such a large American military presence in Japan? If the sole remaining argument is to balance China, this is, in many influential Japanese eyes, quite counterproductive, working to turn China into the enemy it is not. All along, moreover, the Japanese have held profound reservations about American arguments for missile defence, convinced it will unnecessarily antagonise China.

This brings us to the nub of the argument. China has been an essential interlocutor in persuading Kim Jong il to drop his country's traditional hostile policy to the West. The road to Pyongyang runs, at least for some its length, through Beijing. Washington should expect to be charged a toll, and that for China is an end to America's affair with missile defence.

For Cheney and Rumsfeld, who see missile defence as the cutting edge of a new distinct Republican foreign policy, it must seem as if the growing moves towards peace in the Korean peninsular could end up pulling the rug from underneath them. Distrustful anyway of the North's good intentions and tending to believe that Carter, Clinton and South Korea have been duped, it should come as no surprise they are out to sabotage the peace process.

Only one person stands between them and the ear of the president: Secretary of State Colin Powell. The outcome of this potentially deadly dual in the higher echelons of the U.S. government will probably determine whether we have peace in our time in East Asia or not.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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