The Fire Next Time
is the author most recently of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis.
With the exception of perhaps a handful of hardliners in the Bush administration, no one wants Korean War II. Washington, dangerously overextended militarily, knows such a war would be devastating in both human and political terms. Pyongyang, dangerously underequipped militarily, knows war would be suicidal. Yet both sides are inching toward the very war that they and everyone else would like to avoid. If anything, the recently concluded Six-Party talks have brought this conflict only closer.
On the U.S. side, the political folly that has seduced three U.S. administrations is the notion that the regime in Pyongyang is near collapse. The Bush Sr. administration believed North Korea would go the way of Soviet and Eastern European communism. It didn't. The Clinton administration believed North Korea would collapse because of economic decline and the devastating famine that hit the country beginning in 1996. It didn't.
And Bush Jr. was told by advisors that because the government of Kim Jong Il was on its last legs, he could safely ignore this sideshow to the drama taking place in Central Asia and the Middle East. The problem would simply resolve itself, though no one in the regime-change camp in Washington has ever made clear what precisely would replace the North Korean leader or the structure over which he presides.
When the North Korean regime missed this third date with destiny, the Bush Jr. administration ratcheted up the pressure: targeting North Korea in the Nuclear Posture Review, including it in the Axis of Evil, squeezing it economically. And still the regime in Pyongyang soldiers on, ever more committed to developing a nuclear deterrent to prevent future U.S. attacks.
Rumor has it that George Bush recently came to his senses, that his rhetoric about achieving a diplomatic solution to the crisis truly reflects his underlying objectives. He probably still considers North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a "pygmy," as Newsweek reported in May 2002. He no doubt hasn't backed off his assessment of the regime as "evil." But the horrifying consequences of a preventive war gone wrong (or even another "success" on the order of Iraq) have sent him scrambling onto more conciliatory ground.
The chief evidence to back up this rumor is twofold. No bombs have yet fallen on Pyongyang, although North Korea has quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty, kicked U.N. inspectors out of the country, restarted its plutonium facility, and pledged not only to increase its supply of (possibly mythic) nuclear weapons but sell them to the top bidders. Second, the United States behaved with a modicum of diplomacy at the Six Party Talks in Beijing.
If the Bush administration has indeed softened its stance, what to make of recent harangues by the war camp, particularly those of James Woolsey and John Bolton? Woolsey, a senior Pentagon advisor, recommended in an August 4 article in The Wall Street Journal a campaign of up to 4,000 air strikes a day for one to two months. John Bolton, a senior State Department official, lambasted Kim Jong Il by name 41 times in a recent speech in Seoul, a rhetorical technique not usually employed by diplomats or, indeed, anyone over the age of 16. Even as he reminded North Korea that it still belonged in the shrunken "axis of evil," Bolton shifted the emphasis from regime change to personality change, presumably to send a message to potential coup-plotters in Pyongyang. These rumblings from the right contributed to the recent resignation of Jack Pritchard, one of the most experienced North Korea hands in the diplomatic corps.
Woolsey and Bolton may be loose cannons, but their recent statements were well vetted by the White House. The question remains: Are these broadsides merely the American counterpart to the routine North Korean threat to turn its adversaries into a "sea of fire," or do they represent viable policies under consideration in the black box known as the Bush administration? The North Korean government, after all, is not the only opaque policy-making apparatus in this dangerous game. In Washington as in Pyongyang, hardliners provide the sound bites, the camp that favors negotiations can sit at the table but not offer any compromises, and no one is quite sure who has the upper hand.
Wars are not always well-prepared affairs. They can begin in relatively minor ways, like the sinking of a ship or the assassination of an arch-duke. The Korean peninsula offers many potential sparks, from disputes between North and South over crab fishing to U.S. surveillance flights that come perilously close to provoking a North Korean response. North Korea has declared that if the United States imposes economic sanctions, this will be an act of war; the Bush administration has said that if North Korea tests a nuclear weapon, it will have crossed an unacceptable red line. So even if a war could ruin George Bush's electoral prospects and wipe North Korea from the map, both sides have taken many actions and made many statements that could prompt rapid escalation.
The Korean War was a cataclysm, a terrible outpouring of blood and destruction. The 1953 armistice that halted the war may well have been only a provisional peace. Fifty years later, nearly two million soldiers face off across the DMZ, weapons of mass destruction abound on both sides, and military forces in the region are at hair-trigger readiness. Unless North Korea and the United States embark on serious negotiations rather than dead-end talks, a bigger, badder sequel to the 1950 conflict will be the unintended consequence. After the Deluge, as the old spiritual put it, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time."
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Published: Sep 03 2003