June 13, 2002, Shin Hyo-soon and Shim Mi-sun, both 14 years
old, walked along the side of a road on
their way to a birthday party, chattering and laughing,
as children do. They never saw the mammoth U.S. military truck
with two soldiers on board as it crushed them, grinding their
bodies into the South Korean earth.
"tragic accident" say U.S. diplomats and military
officers; an example of the heedless arrogance of American
troops who have long since worn out their welcome, say growing
numbers of South Koreans. Under the terms of the agreement
between South Korea and the U.S. – which mandates that American
soldiers charged with crimes on Korean soil are subject to
U.S. law Sgt. Fernando Nino and Sgt. Mark Walker were
tried in a military court and acquitted of negligent homicide
charges. The process was widely resented, and the reaction
all political parties in South Korea was to denounce the
verdict as a sham.
in the Imperial metropolis, the incident attracted little
notice: a flare-up on the far frontier of the Empire, easily
relegated to the back pages. Stars and Stripes was
the only major American periodical to identify
the girls by name at the time.
on the Korean fringes of the American Empire, however, the
was swift and ominous. After the verdict was announced, tens
of thousands turned out in "Yankee go home" demonstrations
of typically Korean ferocity, in which dozens were injured.
Korea's pro-American President, Kim
Dae-jung, said it was time
to renegotiate the terms of the agreement.
incident roiled the waters of the presidential election campaign:
as even the generally pro-U.S. Grand
National Party candidate – far ahead in the polls at that
point – began to distance
himself from the Americans. But the main beneficiary was Roh
Moo-hyun, of the pro-government Democratic Millennium
Party, who has been more critical of the U.S. presence.
don't have any anti-American sentiment," declared Roh,
"but I won't kowtow to the Americans, either." A
willingness to continue the "sunshine
policy" of his predecessor and stand up to the Americans propelled
Roh to a narrow triumph. The margin of victory may well have
been provided by neoconservative hardliner Richard Perle,
affectionately known around Washington as "the Prince
of Darkness," who
declared, on the eve of the election, that war with Pyongyang
might be necessary.
fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe showed
Pyongyang two possible roads to the future. The North has
been desperately trying to break out of its economic and political
isolation, seeking to emulate East Germany rather than, say,
Romania, and emerge out of the post-communist wilderness.
the North-South rapprochement, which for a while showed real
promise of effecting détente (if not reunification
of the peninsula), was stopped dead in its tracks by the ascension
of the hardliners in Washington. The "sunshine policy"
of Kim Dae-jung was overshadowed by the heavy hand of Washington,
and the economic meltdown of the North Korean economy proceeded
apace, with all hopes of a "soft landing" by Pyongyang
dashed on the rocks of American intransigence.
final straw was the infamous "axis of evil" speech,
in which Bush put Kim Jong Il in the same category as Saddam
Hussein and essentially telegraphed to the North Koreans that
their turn to be "liberated" would come soon after
Iraq's. In this context, the sudden admission by the North
Koreans that their nuclear program is going full-speed ahead
is far from inexplicable. In deciding to come out of the nuclear
closet, what did they have to lose?
Kim Jong Il threatens to take center stage away from Saddam
Hussein as the chief spoke in the Axis of Evil, the wildly
differing approaches to these twin crises is being underscored
by administration critics as evidence of Bushian hypocrisy.
Without a smidgin of evidence that Iraq possesses weapons
of mass destruction, the Bushies are moving toward war, while
the open flaunting of nukes by Pyongyang has – so far – provoked
relatively little in the way of American saber-rattling. But
that could change, and, in any event, this emphasis on these
disparate approaches misses an important point: it is the
similarities that have more to teach U.S. policymakers and
north Asia, as in the Middle East, the main opponents of U.S.
policy are America's staunchest allies: Japan and South Korea.
The reason is simple: the North Koreans have vowed to turn
the South into "a sea of flames" if war breaks out,
and, if Pyongyang was going to be brought down, then they
might decide to take Tokyo with them. "If they were attacked,
I suspect they would probably wipe out Tokyo,"
Bradley Martin, longtime foreign correspondent and veteran
North Korea-watcher. "They hate the Japanese anyway."
Asian skepticism about the ability of the U.S. to defend its
regional satraps in the event of a conflict with North Korea
is nothing new. After the U.S. was driven from Southeast Asia,
the South Korean strongman General Chung-hee Park began to
wonder if his own regime would share the same fate. The South
Koreans decided to embark on a
nuclear weapons program of their own, and were stopped
only after the U.S. found out and demanded an end to it. But
the nuclearization of South Korea is neither desirable, nor
is it necessary. From Seoul's perspective, a war against the
North Korean outpost of the "axis of evil" will
be waged on their soil, and the Japanese are no less
unhappy with the Rumsfeldian
certainty that the U.S. can fight a two-front war that
will level Pyongyang as well as Baghdad.
Dae-jung's visit to the U.S., in March 2001, was humiliating
for him, and for Korea: his "sunshine policy"
was received in Washington with coolness bordering on outright
frigidity, and all talk of détente leading to eventual
reunification was abruptly dismissed by administration officials along
with the Korean President himself, who was referred to by
Colin Powell during a news conference as "this man,"
much to the horror of the Korean media.
an open letter to Bush released on March 26, 2001, thirty
Korea experts affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations
that the administration's peremptory approach to North-South
reunification talks would lead to trouble: "If Pyongyang
is indeed ready to take further steps toward strengthening
peace on the peninsula, then the United States should be fully
prepared to respond," said the letter, signed by Robert
L. Gallucci, chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea and
now head of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service,
Abramowitz, former director of State Department intelligence
and research, James
R. Lilley, former ambassador to China, and Winston
Lord, former assistant secretary of State for Asia, among
the chill from Washington threatened to put the inter-Korean
dialogue on ice, the European Union sent a delegation to Pyongyang
in May: as Tim Beal reports, the Europeans carried two messages
back to Seoul from Kim Jong Il to Kim Dae-jung:
was that Pyongyang would unilaterally continue with the moratorium
on missile testing until 2003 and the other was that [Kim
Jong Il's] return visit to Seoul was still definitely on,
if the Americans came back to the table."
are many reports that the original "axis of evil"
speech referred to Iraq, Iran, and Syria, but that the latter
was taken off the list because an all-Middle Eastern trinity
was a bit too transparent, even for the U.S. government, and
politically inconvenient. The speechwriters went back to work
and came up with North Korea, a last-minute haphazard substitution
that may turn out to have far-reaching albeit unintended consequences.
is an old Korean aphorism that sums up the dangers inherent
in the Korean crisis: a
cornered rat will bite the cat. Facing a bleak future
of increasing isolation and surefire starvation, Pyongyang
tried to break out of its isolation and pursue the path of
dialogue with the South, only to have this thrown back in
their faces by the "axis of evil" rhetoric coming
out of the Bush administration. Now, in desperation, they
are turning to a policy of outright confrontation, one designed
to appeal to the patriotic feeling of all Koreans that only
Koreans have the right to determine their own destiny. Missile
testing on the part of the North Koreans – perhaps a repeat
of the 1998 overflight of Japanese airspace – and other provocative
actions cannot be ruled out.
presence of 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, which has led
to a number of clashes, is increasingly problematic. With
the introduction of the nuclear factor, Kim Jong Il is, in
effect, holding 37,000 Americans hostage, a
point Cato Institute policy analyst Ted Galen Carpenter makes
in USA Today.
however, Carpenter makes a
somewhat different argument, coming out against liberals
who advocate dialogue as well as conservatives who want tougher
sanctions and even military action: "American hawks and
doves both assume that the right U.S. policy will cause the
North to give up its nuclear ambitions." He denounces
"bribery" as ineffective, although perhaps the
extra $12 billion we're going to send to Israel is better
spent preventing millions of North Koreans from starving to
death. He also fails to mention the one U.S. action that could
deter the North from playing the nuclear card: complete U.S.
withdrawal from the Korean peninsula. (Although, to be fair,
he does raise the possibility – parenthetically and indirectly in
the USA Today version of his piece.)
commentators have pointed to the ironic disparity in the U.S.
response to "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq
and North Korea: we are ready to invade the former, while
treating the latter with kid gloves. But this is based on
a misunderstanding of the facts: there is no proof that Iraq
has nuclear weapons, or anything even close, while the North
Koreans are widely believed to have as many as three working
nukes and are openly pursuing the acquisition of yet more.
The irony here is on a deeper level.
as the U.S. is seeking to add another province to its overseas
empire, and its policy intellectuals are beginning
to articulate the concept of an American Imperium as inevitable
and wonderful, the foundations of that structure are being
shaken in Northern Asia, a key outpost of Empire. As we contemplate
the occupation of Iraq and a hare-brained scheme to implant
"democracy" where it has never taken root, the unintended
consequences of yet another failed occupation come back to
haunt us Korean ghosts rising from the graveyard of
U.S. policy failures.
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