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Bush raises the stakes in Korea

January 10, 2003 | Page 3

MORE THAN 1 million people could die in the first days of a conventional war between the U.S. and North Korea, U.S. officials in South Korea estimate. But that hasn't stopped George W. Bush and his administration from bringing the threat of that horrific war ever closer.

Bush may blame the "unpredictable" regime of Kim Jong-il. But anybody who's followed the Bush team's escalating belligerence could see this crisis coming.

Bush began his term in 2001 by breaking off contacts with the North begun under Bill Clinton. Then, Bush's State of the Union address last January lumped North Korea together with Iraq and Iran as part of an "axis of evil."

In March, a leaked "nuclear posture review" showed that the U.S. still maintains decades-old plans to use nuclear weapons against the North in case of a war--a violation of the 1994 agreement in which the North agreed to scrap its own nuclear weapons program. Throughout this time--in fact, since 1957--the U.S. Navy's nuclear-armed Seventh Fleet has patrolled Korean waters in support of 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in the South.

Then there was Bush's racist diatribe. "I loathe Kim Jong-il," Bush declared, calling him a "pygmy." He dismissed concerns that new pressure on North Korea would harm the country's poverty-stricken population. "They tell me…the financial burdens on people will be so immense if this guy were to topple," Bush said. "I just don't buy that."

No wonder Kim Jong-il concluded that he was next in line after Saddam Hussein in the U.S. "war on terrorism"--and made plans to enrich uranium to build a nuclear deterrent.

Since these plans came to light in October, the Bush team's saber-rattling has increased the dangers. The uranium project, says the CIA, would take at least two years to produce material for one bomb. But the Yongbyon nuclear site--reactivated in December in response to new U.S. threats--could produce plutonium to make bombs in just a few months.

Whether the Bush team blundered into this nuclear crisis or engineered it, a quarantine of the North would fulfill Washington's wish to head off a movement for the peaceful integration of East Asia--potentially involving unification of the two Koreas.

This movement advanced farther than ever last summer when the North concluded successful talks with Japan and South Korea--and threatens to elevate China's influence in the region at the expense of the U.S.

Opposition to U.S. policy has grown among South Koreans, who blame the U.S. for the current crisis by a margin of 2 to 1. Last week, the South Korean government--after first seeking support from Russia and China--called on Washington to provide a written promise of non-aggression in return for a commitment from the North to scrap its nuclear weapons program.

This display of independence can only strengthen political connections that Washington fears. If administration figures try to cool down the war fever, it may be because they fear that South Korea could spin out of the U.S. orbit faster than anybody expected.

But no one should underestimate the determination of White House hawks to drive still closer to war. Bush is ready to play geopolitical poker with a million people's lives.

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