Bruce Cumings: The Growing Danger on the Korean Peninsula

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sun Mar 16 14:14:29 MST 2003

*****   The Growing Danger on the Korean Peninsula
Bruce Cumings

We should expect serious trouble in Korea if the impending war with
Iraq goes quickly and Saddam Hussein is overthrown. For the past two
months North Korea has sought to get Washington's attention with a
series of provocative moves, but the Bush administration has
succeeded thus far in dragging its feet and delaying a serious
response. The stage is thus set for the U.S. to deal with the "axis
of evil" serially: first Iraq, then North Korea, then Iran.

The current crisis is a virtual rerun of events that transpired a
decade ago-played on fast-forward by the North since early December.
In 1991 the administration of George H.W. Bush became concerned about
North Korea's graphite nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon, but could
do nothing about it until the U.S. cleared its own nuclear weapons
out of South Korea. Bush pulled the nukes out in the fall of 1991 and
inaugurated the first-ever high level talks with Pyongyang. In came
Bill Clinton, however, who was focused on the economy and paid no
attention to North Korea. To grab Clinton's attention, accordingly,
six weeks after his inauguration the North declared that
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors were doing the
bidding of U.S. intelligence, announced its withdrawal from the NPT,
and stated that any sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council
would be "an act of war."

This crisis lasted 18 months, reaching fever pitch in June 1994 when
Clinton nearly mounted a preemptive strike on Yongbyon. Fortunately
Jimmy Carter jumped into the fray, gaining a commitment to a total
freeze on the graphite reactor. Soon the IAEA came back in, sealed
off the reactor, encased the fuel rods in concrete casks, and sat
there watching the facility for the past eight years.

The North began the current rapidly-unfolding repeat in December. It
again kicked the inspectors out, castigated the IAEA for being a tool
of Washington, announced its withdrawal from the NPT, began loading
new fuel rods, and said that any Security Council sanctions would be
interpreted as "a declaration of war."1 But it has stopped short of
opening the plutonium casks, the clearest "red line" that might again
provoke a preemptive American strike at the facility.

It was also in December that the South Korean people decisively broke
with the existing political system and the elites within it that date
back to the Korean War, by electing Roh Moo Hyun, a lawyer with a
courageous record of defense of labor leaders and human rights
activists during the darkest days of the military dictatorship in the
1980s. His election was boosted 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 U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

Roh has since made clear his dissatisfaction with Bush's policies
toward the North and his desire to solve the problem through
dialogue, and perhaps as a consequence the initial meetings between
his advance team and Bush officials in early February did not go
well: indeed, according to Howard W. French of The New York Times,
some insiders described the visit as "a near disaster." As one
American participant put it, "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." Thus Bush finds himself having to manage two very
difficult relationships on the Korean peninsula, amid the
rapidly-building momentum toward war with Iraq.

The acute danger today, however, derives primarily from a combination
of typical and predictable North Korean cheating and provocation,
longstanding U.S. war plans to use nuclear weapons in the earliest
stages of a new Korean War, Bush's new preventive war doctrine, and
his loathing of Kim Jong Il and his regime. Bush's new doctrine
conflates existing plans for the early use of nuclear weapons in a
crisis started by North Korea, which have been standard operating
procedure for the U.S. military in Korea for decades, with the
apparent determination to attack states like North Korea simply
because they would like to have nuclear weapons such as those that
the U.S. still amasses by the thousands. Moreover, Bush seems bent on
"regime change" in North Korea. Last August Bush declared to veteran
Washington insider Bob Woodward his preference for "toppling" the
North Korean regime.3 According to New Yorker investigative
journalist Seymour Hersh (the most well-informed reporter in
Washington since September 11th), 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 early February, the North
Korean party newspaper stated that "It is foolish for the U.S. to
think that we will sit idle with folded arms to wait until it gives
orders for a preemptive strike."

So, expect trouble in the near term because of these grave threats of
preemption and counter-preemption, and because of the big gap between
the incoming administration of Roh Moo Hyun and George W. Bush over
how to deal with North Korea. In the long run the only way to solve
this nuclear problem is for the U.S. 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 it has been
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.

Bruce Cumings teaches at the University of Chicago. His book,
Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations, has
recently appeared in paperback, and contains an extended analysis of
the first crisis with North Korea.
(March 7, 2003)

<>   *****

Bruce Cumings: <>
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Bruce Cumings, _Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian
Relations_, Duke University Press (Cloth, 1999/Paperback, 2002),

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