Bush's North Korean slippery slope

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By Sol Sanders

Sol W. Sanders

October 22, 2003

President Bush is moving into new unknown territory with his offer to extend security “guarantees” to the North Koreans in exchange for ending its nuclear weapons program. What Bush has said he would not do was sign “a non-aggression pact” with Pyongyang. Such a treaty [aside from getting it through the U.S. Senate with a withering debate in a presidential election year requiring a two-thirds vote] smacks too much of the World War I-World War II period when such treaties along with “disarmament” pacts helped bring on the holocaust.

But Bush’s Bangkok statement was not improvised as some media reported. Secretary of State Powell had earlier called in the news agencies to announce his victory in shifting American policy. It was a major turnaround since the U.S. had over and over again stated it would not give North Korea such assurances, obviously leaving the threat of military action as a final option in dealing with Pyongyang.

Why the Administration has changed its line is obvious. Washington has consistently argued the crisis’ solution must be multilateral, that it could come only worked out among the six interested parties Ý the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia. Washington is under pressure from Beijing which holds aces in the North Korean crisis poker for such an agreement. It is also the South Koreans’ position.

[President Roh seems to worry less about North Korea having a nuclear weapon than the possibility regime collapse might bring chaos, a flood of refugees, and forced-march reunification.] Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, willing to try to buy the North Koreans off before his kidnapped citizens became a dramatic popular issue just before an election, presumably has uppermost security concerns since a North Korean missile flew over his head in 1998.

Furthermore, Bush has other problems: the military option Ý that is, taking out the North Korean nuclear facilities which the Clinton Administration considered in 1993-94 before it adopted a failed policy of trying to buy Pyongyang off -- is not “on the table”. The U.S. may not be bogged down in Iraq, as its critics claim, but it has problems of logistics, inventories, and specialized forces precluding such an action now. Furthermore, with Bush under furious attack by Democrat presidential aspirants for what they charge are failures in Iraq, the President could not hope to get any kind of consensus for a Korean military option. And it would have the bitter opposition of Seoul, that capital city which sits under the trajectory of North Korean artillery.

The South Koreans Ý who should know more about what is happening in the North Ý cling to the belief a persistent effort to tempt North Korea’s Kim Jong Il will produce results. Seoul offers food, fuel, investment in restructuring the bankrupt North Korean economy, and confidence-building measures as tourism, reunification of families separated in the Korean War when millions of North Koreans fled south, and cultural interchanges. And, apparently, Seoul thinks South Korea’s corrupt political culture can win hearts and minds in the North as revealed by the under the table $100 million paid o set up the first meeting between two Korean leaders when former President Kim Dae Jung went to Pyongyang cap in hand but was jilted at the altar. Rebuffs Ý a South Korean delegation has just returned from Pyongyang empty handed Ý notwithstanding, hope springs eternal among young Koreans willing to excuse government-induced mass starvation, repeated attacks on the South, and all past North Korean provocations.

The case is made that Kim Jong Il, as a crafty politician, believes he can have his cake and eat it too. That is, using nuclear blackmail, he could force his neighbors and the U.S. to rebuild his economy, continue to support his bloated 1.5 million military, preserve his personal dictatorship.

Were that true, there are still two unanswered questions which beg what the Administration is now proposing:

1] Is it, indeed, possible to “guarantee” the North’s security? Despite its weapons of mass destruction, like its Communist sister states in Central and Eastern Europe, it risks implosion at any moment Ý especially as Kim must fear, if it begins even limited economic “liberalization”, the Chinese model notwithstanding.

2] If the old Reagan formula of “Trust but verify” is followed Ý as the Administration continues to insist it must Ý what and how? Certainly the UN International Atomic Energy Agency’s record in Iraq and Iran Ý and North Korea -- is not a model. Does that mean that China Ý which now supplies 80% of North Korea’s energy, much of its food and has chaperoned the multinational effort Ý is to be the guarantor?

And at what price? Concessions on Taiwan? Just this week Washington issued a new report naming China, itself, as violating its non-proliferation agreements the very central fear, of course, that has fueled the North Korean crisis.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World

October 22, 2003

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