Who’s to blame for the Korea crisis?

November 29, 2010

Lee Sustar looks at how U.S. policy set the stage for the latest military standoff between North and South Korea--and what else is at stake in the conflict.

A NUCLEAR-armed state is dramatically flexing its military muscle on the Korean peninsula while refusing to simply enter into negotiations that could ease the crisis.

That state isn't North Korea, though. It's the United States.

Rather than respond to North Korea's November 23 artillery attack by trying to prevent a horrific war, the U.S. is sending a naval battle group led by a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to conduct exercises with the South Korean Navy in waters close to the disputed maritime border between the Koreas. This can only make tensions worse.

To focus on the role of the U.S. in this crisis isn't to apologize for North Korea's attack, which led to civilian deaths and injuries, and widespread destruction in a fishing village. The dictatorial North Korean regime has its own reasons for ratcheting up the conflict.

But such an event was practically guaranteed to take place as the result of the U.S. policy of tightening sanctions on a heavily militarized Stalinist dictatorship that presides over a decrepit economy and an impoverished and starving people.

Pilots conduct test flights from the deck of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier off the coast of the Korean Peninsula
Pilots conduct test flights from the deck of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier off the coast of the Korean Peninsula (Lee Jung-Hoon)

North and South Korea have technically been at war since 1950, despite a cease-fire signed in 1953 to end a bloody three-year campaign in which U.S. forces backed the South against a North Korean state supported by China and Russia in the early years of the Cold War. U.S. forces have occupied South Korea in the decades since, and small-scale military clashes have periodically broken out at the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries.

North Korea remains one of the last Stalinist outposts in the world--and its economy is on the edge of collapse. Yet rather than respond to North Korea's crisis as an opportunity to reduce tensions, the U.S. and South Korea instead see an opportunity to increase pressure on the North. In addition, North Korea's ongoing leadership succession, from the gravely ill dictator Kim Jong-Il to his son Kim Jong-un, apparently tempted strategists in Washington and Seoul to test the regime. So the U.S. is mounting a major show of force.

For his part, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak backed away from his predecessor's policy of trying to engage with the North economically and diplomatically. And following the artillery attack, South Korea is cutting humanitarian aid--including food--at a time when hunger is widespread in the North.

Driving this policy has been the Obama administration, which in April 2009 moved to isolate North Korea diplomatically after that country launched a rocket it claimed was a satellite, but which the U.S. contended was a test of a ballistic missile.

Yet just a year earlier, North Korea had been engaged in six-party talks around North-South Korea issues in a forum that included the U.S., the two Koreas, Russia, China and Japan.

The negotiations carried out under the Bush administration had succeeded in getting North Korea to agree to scrap its nuclear weapons programs and rejoin the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). North Korea even televised the destruction of the cooling tower of its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. In exchange, the North Korea received heavy fuel oil from abroad in order to meet its energy needs.

The Bush administration, however, apparently saw North Korea's move as a sign of weakness and aggressively sought more concessions from the regime. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. "sought 'full access to any site, facility or location' deemed relevant to the nuclear program, including military facilities," a demand that David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, called "completely unacceptable to any country's sovereignty" and "a license to spy on any military site they have."

When North Korean negotiators balked at U.S. demands, the Bush administration reneged on a promise to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism--a move that would have opened diplomatic and economic channels to the country.

North Korea responded by walking away from the six-party negotiations altogether, throwing nuclear inspectors out of the country and announcing the resumption of its nuclear program. That revived program has apparently achieved results: a U.S. scientist was recently invited to North Korea to visit what he concluded was an advanced nuclear facility.

In short, U.S. officials, possibly on the brink of achieving a denuclearized North Korea--a diplomatic and security objective they had worked for more than a decade to achieve-- threw it away in the hopes of squeezing North Korea's rulers still further. With that kind of pressure from the world's only superpower, should the paranoia and militarism of North Korea's rulers be any surprise?

COMPLICATING MATTERS more recently has been North Korea's leadership transition.

Kim Jong-il--who took over from his own father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994--apparently suffered a stroke a few weeks after the breakdown of the six-party talks. Relations between the Koreas soured further after North Korea's failed rocket launch, and hit a new low in March when South Korea accused the North of sinking a warship, killing 46 sailors.

North Korea has denied any role in the ship's sinking. But mainstream opinion holds that both the sinking of the ship and the artillery attack were efforts by North Korea to force the U.S. and South Korea back to the bargaining table.

The U.S., however, is refusing not only bilateral talks with North Korea, but also the resumption of the six-party talks. Instead, the U.S. is pressing China, the closest thing North Korea has to an ally, into line.

The U.S. and China have contradictory aims in North Korea, which is a key part of a far larger struggle for influence over East Asia. Where the U.S. wants to keep pressure on the North to achieve a regime change, China favors a long-term engagement with the North and gradual transition. However, the U.S. and China share an interest in trying to stabilize North Korea, lest a collapse of the regime sends millions of starving refugees across the South Korean and Chinese borders.

Such a scenario isn't far-fetched. An estimated one-third of North Korean children under the age of 5 suffer from malnourishment, and mortality rates for infants and adults increased by some 30 percent between 1993 and 2008. Further, the regime abandoned tentative economic reforms with a currency reform that effectively wiped out the savings of millions of people.

In this context, it isn't clear whether North Korea's military actions are a show of strength by a new leadership around Kim Jong-un or a sign of an unstable and crisis-ridden regime.

What is certain, however, is that U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula will only heighten the risk of a horrific war.

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