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NORTH KOREA
Stumbling toward a catastrophic war
Bush steps up the pressure

By David Whitehouse | May 16, 2003 | Page 5

FLUSHED WITH the military success of the war on Iraq, George W. Bush is renewing his threats against North Korea. In his May 1 photo-op on board the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, Bush promised to continue his pre-emptive "war on terror" and "hunt down the enemy before he can strike."

Although Bush clearly means to threaten a long list of "enemies," North Korea--named by Bush in February 2002 as part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran--is high on the hit list.

Since a meeting with U.S. envoys last October, the North Korean government has defiantly declared its right to develop nuclear weapons. When Washington finally agreed to more face-to-face talks in April, U.S. officials dismissed the North's renewed offer to drop its nuclear weapons program in return for aid and--crucially--a guarantee that the U.S. won't attack. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the supposed "dove" of the Bush team, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the North's offer "is a proposal that is not going to take us in the direction we need to go."

The stakes in this conflict are very high. According to U.S. military planners, a war between the U.S. and North Korea could cause up to 1 million deaths--split evenly between the North and South--in just the first few days.

Although the Bush team claims bewilderment at North Korea's motives for pursuing nuclear weapons, people in East Asia widely blame the crisis the Bush administration's belligerence. After the "axis of evil" speech, the Bush team leaked its plans to use nuclear weapons in case of a war on the Korean peninsula, and Bush himself ranted about his desire to remove North Korea's ruler, Kim Jong-il, from power.

Last fall, with the U.S. building up forces to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Kim Jong-il realized that he could be next--unless he possessed the kind of military deterrent that Saddam lacked. In recent months, Bush only ratcheted up the crisis.

Even as the war drive against Iraq reached its climax, the U.S. called up 40,000 troops to conduct provocative war games with 37,000 troops already in South Korea. The extra troops are still there. Bush has also deployed long-range bombers on Guam and stationed Stealth F-117s in South Korea. F-117s are "first-strike" fighters of the type that Bush used in his attempt to kill Saddam Hussein on the first night of the Iraq war.

As the Bush team shifted its propaganda about Iraq away from the question of "weapons of mass destruction" and onto the goal of "liberation," they likewise began to emphasize Kim Jong-il's iron-fisted rule in North Korea. Under pressure from the U.S., the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights voted April 16 to censure North Korea, a move that will authorize more intrusive UN scrutiny of the regime in the future.

The U.S. and European Union members of the commission had the harshest words for North Korea--but nothing to say about repression in Russia or China.

In case anybody thought that concern for North Korean human rights was anything more than a cynical charade, all doubt was removed by the Bush team's choice for casting its vote on the commission--Jeane Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick was Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations and well-known as a defender of the dictatorial regimes that the U.S. counted as allies around the world.

The Bush administration has also tried to get regional powers China, South Korea and Japan to cut off aid to North Korea. But China and the South balked, since they would be left to clean up the mess if the North's economy collapses.

However, China now has good reason to worry about a different threat. Japanese leaders have stepped joint work with the U.S. on missile defense--and even opened up discussions about rearming the country's military.

If Bush stumbles into a war with North Korea, the results will be catastrophic. But even if he doesn't, his belligerence is stoking an insane arms race that will affect all of Asia.

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