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NORTH KOREA
What's behind U.S. threats?
How Washington caused the crisis

By David Whitehouse | August 15, 2003 | Page 7

IN A surprise concession to U.S. demands, the North Korea government has agreed to join meetings between six countries to discuss its nuclear program. The talks, set to convene in Beijing in late August or early September, will include North and South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia.

Through nine months of crisis, North Korea's rulers have wanted to talk--but directly with the U.S. They say that their real conflict is with George W. Bush. They have a point. Bush frequently expresses open hostility to the Stalinist state and its ruler Kim Jong-il. He has heaped racist abuse on Kim--calling him a "pygmy"--and listed the North, along with Iran and Iraq, as part of an "axis of evil." Meanwhile, a Pentagon leak revealed that the U.S. still maintains its Cold War-era plans to use nuclear weapons against the North.

As for the current confrontation, Bush provoked it--and everybody in the region knows it.

The crisis arose when the Bush team became alarmed that South Korea and Japan--among the closest of U.S. allies--were on the verge of making peace with the North after 50 years of hostility. Talks between North and South had become almost routine since a historic summit in 2000. And under the South's "Sunshine Policy," denounced by Bush from his first months in office, 300 Southern companies have invested in the North.

But the Bush team went into a real frenzy last September when Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's prime minister, announced--without consulting the U.S.--that he would visit Kim Jong-il. Washington tried to spoil Japan's plan for reconciliation. According to the Washington Post, U.S. officials showed Koizumi spy data indicating that North Korea had begun a program of uranium enrichment to make atomic bombs.

But to the Bush gang's disappointment, Koizumi did not take a confrontational stance with Kim when he met with North Korean officials. Koizumi even gained the release of Japanese citizens kidnapped by the North in the 1970s. This boosted Koizumi's sagging popularity, and he announced that normalization talks would convene in late October. Observers expected that normalization would bring $10 billion of Japanese aid to the cash-strapped North--along with access to international loans.

Future developments were easy to imagine. South Korea could normalize relations with the North--and sign a peace treaty to officially close the Korean War of 1950-53. This would threaten to end U.S. control of South Korea's 670,000 troops, which the U.S. continues to command under the legal cover of a 1950 United Nations mandate.

In other words, North Korea was closer than ever to busting out of its Cold War quarantine--which would reduce U.S. influence to the benefit of the region's rising power, China. So the U.S. intervened to re-isolate the North. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went to Pyongyang in October to badger the North into a confrontation.

Faced with Washington's charge that it was restarting its mothballed nuclear weapons programs, North Korean diplomats asserted the country's right to build any weapons it needed to defend itself against U.S. threats. The crisis escalated when the U.S. cut off fuel oil shipments. The North responded by restarting a nuclear plant capable of producing plutonium, another component of weapons.

The crisis may more than Bush and his team bargained for. It has stoked resentment of the U.S. in South Korea, as residents deal with the renewed threat of a horrific war.

But the policy of re-isolating the North has succeeded in reinforcing the old Cold-War alignments that keep the U.S. the dominant regional player. Instead of forging independent policies toward the North, Japan and South Korea are meeting with U.S. officials this week to prepare a common front for the upcoming talks.

Japan especially has come back into the U.S. fold. There is no longer any talk of normalization now. The Washington-engineered confrontation has bolstered Japan's pro-U.S. and pro-militarist forces, which are rewriting Japanese laws to allow more freedom to use armed forces overseas. And with new fears of North Korean missiles, Japan's rulers have agreed to accelerate deployment of joint missile defense with the U.S. This program draws Japan onto the U.S. side against China, since the U.S. missile defense system is also designed to defend Taiwan against Chinese missiles.

These developments have made China's rulers anxious to stop the North's nuclear programs--even though they are the North's closest ally. China wants to avoid an expensive arms race and get on with the business of making money. So they have cooperated with South Korea--a major business partner--to get North Korea to the bargaining table.

The big unknown is what will happen at the talks. From the start, Kim Jong-il has promised to scrap his nuclear weapons program in return for a formal assurance that the U.S. won't attack. Bush has so far rejected this resolution to the crisis--because the crisis itself has served U.S. regional interests so well.

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