By David Whitehouse | January 17, 2003 | Page 5
JUST AS the Bush administration started to back out of its confrontation with North Korea, the government of Kim Jong-il turned up the heat January 10 by announcing its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Last weekend, some 1 million North Koreans rallied in the capital of Pyongyang to protest Washington's recent threats, and the country's ambassador to China hinted that North Korea may scrap a self-imposed moratorium on ballistic missile tests.
The mainstream media portrayed the rally as a call for a suicidal war. But the real threat of a military conflict comes from Washington.
The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet--armed with nuclear weapons--patrols the waters off North Korea, and the Pentagon has 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in the South. And administration officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have spent the last month rattling sabers over North Korea.
Also over the weekend, North Korea's official newspaper renewed the denial that the government ever admitted to pursuing a program of enriching uranium to make nuclear bombs. Last October, U.S. Undersecretary of State James Kelly announced that North Korean officials had told him about the program--touching off the current crisis and providing the pretext for the U.S. to cut off fuel oil shipments in November. The oil would have provided for half of North Korea's winter heating needs.
The U.S. cutoff spurred Kim to reactivate three nuclear reactor projects, including one at Yongbyon that is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Despite the hostile tone, the North Korean government declared last week that it had no intention of building nuclear weapons and said again that it wanted to open talks with the U.S. to end the crisis.
In pulling out of the Nonproliferation Treaty, North Korean officials may simply be signaling their aim to be tough negotiators. But whatever the intention, the move gave George W. Bush an excuse to accelerate the U.S. missile defense program.
Along with Bush's January 2002 State of the Union address declaring that North Korea belongs, with Iraq and Iran, to an "axis of evil," Washington's pursuit of missile defense is a major contributor to the current crisis. North Korea--and China and Russia--fear that the antimissile technology will clear the way for the U.S. to launch offensive wars, by shielding the U.S. from retaliation.
Amid all the confusing signs, North Korea certainly has scored some points against the "Bush Doctrine" of pre-emptive wars. Bush offered direct talks with the North on January 7--reversing his previous demand that Kim renounce any nuclear programs before negotiations could begin.
On the same day, a U.S. statement issued jointly with South Korea and Japan declared that the U.S. "poses no threat and has no intention of invading North Korea." The statement falls short of Kim's demand for a non-aggression treaty--something that Bush would never try to push through the Senate--but Secretary of State Colin Powell said that a formal non-aggression pledge was possible.
And James Kelly, in South Korea for consultations, even said that a quick restoration of fuel aid could happen if North Korea re-freezes its nuclear programs.
There are many reasons for the White House to soften its line. For one, the administration wants to focus on its impending war on Iraq--and doesn't want another military conflict to distract it.
And regardless of whether Iraq was in its gun sights, the Bush gang would hesitate to fight North Korea, which could quickly inflict 500,000 casualties in a conventional war, according to the estimates of U.S. officials.
Another problem for the White House is that the alternative to a shooting war--United Nations sanctions--would likely be vetoed by Russia or China. China is North Korea's closest ally, and it fears that more pressure on the teetering North Korean economy would drive a new wave of hungry refugees to join the thousands who have already crossed the border into China.
Meanwhile, Bush's allies in the region, South Korea and Japan--which have also sought closer ties with the North--are also trying to get the U.S. to tone down its threats.
If Washington keeps backing off, it would be a setback for the Bush Doctrine's vision of dominating other countries around the globe. But no one should underestimate Washington's war makers. Even if they back off for now, if Washington can win a quick victory against Iraq, the Bush gang could be back soon to put a deadly squeeze on North Korea.