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What's next after the North's nuclear test
Washington's long siege of North Korea

October 20, 2006 | Page 6

DAVID WHITEHOUSE explains the background to the heightened tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons test.

THE MOST surprising thing about North Korea's October 9 nuclear test may be that much of the surprise has already worn off.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may try to stoke a sense of urgency this week as she rushes around Asia to press the enforcement of new United Nations (UN) sanctions. But popular fears of impending armed conflict have diminished.

Initially skittish foreign investors are again betting that South Korea isn't about to become a war zone, and South Korean bosses themselves have decided to get on with the business of profiting from tourism and sweatshops in the North.

What else to read

For a short, sharp book-length treatment of the crisis, see John Feffer's North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Politics and the Korean Peninsula. Bruce Cumings, the leading U.S. historian of Korea, provides unique insight into the Northern regime in North Korea: Another Country.


Sanctions passed in the UN Security Council last week do tighten the screws on North Korea, but they contain no threat of armed force. The U.S. dropped its insistence on this threat in order to gain Russian and Chinese support. It also scrapped a demand that UN member states inspect all cargo going in and out of North Korea, instead vaguely calling for inspections "as necessary."

The resulting resolution is narrowly crafted. It prohibits trade in major arms with North Korea, instructs member states to freeze assets linked to production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), bans international travel of Northerners connected to WMD programs, and stops the sale of luxury goods to the North.

U.S. allies South Korea, Japan and Australia have taken their own measures to tighten the noose on North Korea, but Japan's new prime minister made a point of saying that Japan won't use the North's test as an excuse to start a nuclear arms program of its own.

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THE SURPRISE has worn off because the nuclear test was actually not a surprise. That's not just because North Korea announced the test in advance--a historic first among the world's nine nuclear-armed states.

Since late 2002, North Korea has been open about its intention of creating a nuclear deterrent against U.S. threats.

At that time, the North expelled UN monitors and openly resumed its nuclear program following a U.S. cutoff of fuel oil shipments to the energy-starved state. A U.S. diplomat provoked this flare-up when he accused North Korea of secretly enriching uranium in violation of a 1994 agreement. The crisis was timed to head off moves made earlier in the year by both Japan and South Korea to normalize relations with North Korea.

George Bush had vowed since before he took office in 2001 to keep the North isolated. Once in office, he broke off talks with the North that began under Bill Clinton and denounced South Korea's "sunshine policy" of political and economic engagement.

Then, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush used his 2002 State of the Union address to castigate North Korea as a member of an "axis of evil"--a hit list for "regime change" after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. That spring, an administration leak revealed that North Korea is targeted for nuclear attack in case of war--and Bush soon hurled a racist insult at the North's ruler, Kim Jong-il, calling him a "pygmy."

The North's quick march toward nuclear arms is thus clearly aimed at preserving the regime's existence against a hostile superpower.

This simple fact seems to be understood everywhere but the U.S. In South Korea, for example, 43 percent of adults hold the U.S. responsible for the North's nuclear test, as compared to 37 percent who blame North Korea.

North Korea's motivations and the deeper roots of the conflict are obscured by the claims and counterclaims by Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.--empty chatter that conceals the real history of U.S. belligerence toward North Korea from the Cold War to Clinton.

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NORTH KOREA developed as a fortress state under the shadow of U.S. armed force.

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, the U.S. firebombed Tokyo and destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs. In the Korean War that began just five years later, the U.S.--going to war under a UN flag--firebombed every northern city to the ground with napalm, its new "conventional" weapon.

The armistice of 1953 kept the country divided along Cold War lines--with the South and the U.S. still technically at war with the North. This legal pretext justifies today's presence of 32,000 U.S. troops in South Korea--and U.S. command of South Korea's 650,000 troops in case of a new war.

In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower violated the armistice by introducing nuclear weapons into the South. For 50 years, U.S. spy planes have crisscrossed North Korea's airspace, inspiring a Northern policy of building everything underground that might be bombed.

The North now has 10,000 fortified artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, the Southern capital and home to 20 million people. These cannons and thousands of rockets have served as a deterrent to U.S. attack, but from the 1980s, the North has sought to create its own nuclear counterweight.

In 1985, USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev induced the North to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by promising electricity-producing reactors--of the "light-water" variety that produce little bomb-usable fuel. North Korea's economic development, which had run ahead of the South's until the mid-1970s, was stalling, in part for lack of energy.

Gorbachev never delivered the reactors. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the successor regime in Russia cut off loans and aid to North Korea. At the same time, the North's other benefactor, China, started to demand cash for goods at world-market prices as it became more interested in good relations with the surging economy of the South.

North Korea--already cut off from the rest of the world economy by a U.S. Cold-War quarantine--fell into economic crisis.

The North began to search for a new patron, even courting the favor of George Bush Sr. before Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992. Bush responded cautiously, but cancelled anti-Northern war games and pulled nuclear warheads out of the South--and started to call for a "non-nuclear peninsula." Nuclear-armed U.S. missiles and planes remained just offshore, of course.

Partisan myth has it that Bill Clinton's policy on North Korea was "soft," but he came into office the way Bush Jr. later did--by breaking off any talk of reconciliation. Clinton stoked a nuclear crisis of his own by restarting war games and retargeting long-range missiles, once aimed at Russia, on North Korea. Before the crisis was resolved in 1994, the South Korean defense minister revealed that the U.S. had drawn up new plans for the armed overthrow of the North and its takeover by the South.

In the 1994 deal, North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program in return for an end to U.S.-led embargoes on trade and credit--followed by full normalization with the U.S. The North would also receive the light-water reactors that Gorbachev had promised, plus shipments of heavy oil as a stopgap fuel to produce electricity.

Clinton broke every promise except the delivery of fuel oil, so famine-stricken North Korea's crisis continued. That was Clinton's plan. Just a little more strangulation would bring down the Northern regime, U.S. officials reasoned, and the South could take over without firing a shot.

But Kim Jong-il held on to power, and Southern politicians soon invented a new takeover strategy. The "sunshine policy"--the opposite of strangulation--would build up the North's infrastructure and make Southern capital indispensible to the economy. If unification followed--as most Koreans, North and South, desire--Southern bosses wouldn't inherit an economic basket case, as West Germany did when it absorbed the East in 1990.

Clinton was uninterested in "sunshine" until the end of his second term, when Kim floated a new proposal. He suggested that he would rule an autonomous northern province of a united Korea, and U.S. troops would be allowed to stay--and move north to the Chinese border.

For years, the U.S. had feared that the South's growing economic connections to China were drawing it out of the U.S. political orbit. Kim was offering to reverse this seemingly inevitable drift by bringing the North into the U.S. camp against China. Madeleine Albright rushed to the Northern capital of Pyongyang in the summer of 2000 to keep Kim on his track toward the U.S.

But nothing came of this, because in 2001, Bush Jr., like Clinton before him, came into office rattling sabers.

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THE NEW phase of the crisis since the nuclear test is likely to go on for a while.

North Korea is still years away from producing a working nuclear weapon, and the U.S. has no new cards to play to make the North reverse its course. The South's rulers have no will to challenge a well-armed North. China won't act to produce more social disintegration in its neighbor and ally, which acts as a buffer against U.S. forces and already produces a flow of refugees into China's northeast.

The North itself keeps taking steps to escalate the crisis because it can't live with the U.S.-imposed noose around its neck.

Even the North's "international criminal activities," decried with such fervor by Rice and Bush--counterfeiting and the sale of arms and drugs--are efforts to raise the foreign exchange the U.S. has long blocked through legal channels.

The immediate background to the nuclear test is a yearlong U.S. effort to expand a bankers' boycott of North Korea that began with Treasury Department action last September against a single Macau bank accused of laundering money for the North. As more banks have shied away from the North under U.S. pressure, the North's legal international trade--which last year finally recovered to its meager Cold-War level of $3 billion--has been drying up.

Months before the nuclear test, North Korea walked out of the "six-party" talks in protest of the financial boycott. These talks, which include both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S., have provided an international cover for U.S. pressure against the regime. But the North has always contended, with good reason, that its problem is with the U.S., which has tried to keep the regime at death's door--a tactic in a broader strategy to continue dominating the region.

For half a century, this bipartisan U.S. strategy has kept northeast Asia on the edge of a horrific renewal of war.

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