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Why Washington is to blame
Behind the crisis with North Korea

By David Whitehouse | March 14, 2003 | Page 7

AS HORRIFIC as a new Iraq war will be, the human cost of a war in Korea could be even higher. That's the grim truth behind the latest war threats between North Korea and the U.S.

Within minutes of a U.S. attack, North Korea could launch 750 missiles and activate 13,000 artillery tubes--all pointed toward U.S.-allied South Korea. The 21 million people in metropolitan Seoul, the capital of South Korea, live in an area that U.S. forces call the "kill box"--which could get pounded with 5,000 artillery shells, some filled with anthrax or sarin gas, in the first 12 hours of war. One million civilian deaths are possible in the first few days of a war.

And now the North is just months away from producing as many as 10 nuclear bombs per year. How could the U.S. have gotten such a dangerous enemy in this seemingly remote area of the world?

Korea--which today remains artificially divided into North and South--is a flash point because it stands at a boundary between empires.

In the distant past, Korea was a battleground for rivalry between China and Japan. In the 20th century, Japan took the territory--plus the region of northeastern China then known as Manchuria--by defeating Russia in a 1905 war. Japan, with help from U.S. investors, exploited its Korean colony ruthlessly--in the hopes of making it as a springboard for further conquests.

At the close of the First World War in 1918, Korean delegates traveled to the Versailles peace conference to ask for independence. But U.S. President Woodrow Wilson--who had declared worldwide de-colonization to be a war aim--barred the Koreans, making it clear that "self-determination" would not extend to colonies of U.S. allies.

The Japanese fell out with their U.S. partners in the late 1930s over who would be top dog in the vast Asia-Pacific region. After the U.S. defeated Japan in the Second World War, the U.S. and the former USSR--allies during the war, but now Cold War superpower rivals--promptly created a "temporary" partition of the Korean peninsula.

When Communist forces in the North--in reality, clients of the USSR occupiers--launched an offensive in 1950 to reunite Korea, the U.S. unleashed a genocide. Under the cover of United Nations authority, U.S. forces used a horrible new weapon--napalm--to firebomb every Northern city to the ground. One U.S. commander finally broke off attacks on Pyongyang, the Northern capital, saying that there was "nothing left worth bombing." Nevertheless, with Chinese help, Northern forces fought the U.S. to a stalemate, and the partition line was reconfirmed in the 1953 "peace" deal.

Following the war, both North and South developed as repressive garrison states, though dressed up with different ideologies. In the 1980s, a South Korean democracy movement, propelled by the rise of workers' struggles, overcame three decades of military dictatorship--no thanks to the U.S., which backed the generals throughout.

North Korea, meanwhile, still has its dictatorship. Its rulers bind the population to the state with an ideology of national self-reliance and resistance to U.S. imperialism. The state's founder, Kim Il Sung, won his anti-imperialist credentials by fighting the Japanese in Manchuria in the 1930s.

Although the North claims its system is "socialist," it has nothing in common with the vision of socialism as workers' power and democracy. The regime mixes Stalinist state direction of the economy (and of everyday life) with Confucian glorification of fatherly leaders. It even has a family dynasty. Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, is now in charge.

It's no surprise that the country Kim runs is highly militarized. In 1958, Dwight Eisenhower introduced nuclear weapons to the South--in violation of the terms of the 1953 armistice. Every president since then has planned to use nuclear weapons against North Korea in case of war--because the North would be unable to respond.

Right wingers today complain about the North's deadly missiles and artillery, plus its 700,000 troops, stationed just 60 miles from Seoul. But they leave out the rest of the equation. The U.S. has 37,000 troops in the South and 65,000 more in nearby Japan. The nuclear-armed Seventh Fleet lies offshore, and 540,000 U.S.-armed South Korean troops are stationed 60 miles from Pyongyang.

It may be madness, but these opposing forces have deterred a war for decades. What has changed recently is George W. Bush's open threats to overthrow Kim Jong Il. That prompted Kim to respond with threats to build a nuclear deterrent.

And as with previous conflicts, the real problem isn't confined to the Korean peninsula. Bush may want to demolish North Korea just to prove a point to China--the rising rival to U.S. power in Asia.

These are the ingredients of a powder keg that's ready to blow the moment that Bush lights the match.

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