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Viewed from the cynical pit of capital politics, North Korea is no distraction from Iraq, but instead another big plus for Bush domestic policy. Fears of missiles sailing in from Asia can only underscore Bush's arguments for a "Little Star Wars" missile shield plan.
Bush doesn't really want to attack the peninsula, if only because Washington is counting the days (about a month's worth is the current best guess) until the U.S. attacks Iraq.
And while the White House may be willing to weather armed conflict on two fronts, the administration is less prepared to plunge two regions into economic chaos. Making war with North Korea would inevitably affect South Korea, China, and Japanall vitally important in the world marketplace. Already, Bush administration threats against North Korea have sent the Korea Ordinary Share Price Index plunging for five consecutive days, widening the new rift between America and its longtime ally, South Korea. Kim Dae-Jung, South Korea's president, would love to see his neighbor abandon its nuclear program, but he flatly rejected U.S. threats to use sanctions as a means of persuasion. "Pressuring and isolating communist countries have never been successful," he said, according to the South Korean news service. "But inducing such countries to open up through dialogue has always been successful.
"We cannot go to war with North Korea," he added. "We can't go back to the Cold War system and extreme confrontation."
Thus is the anxious planet pulled back, for now, from what could otherwise be the brink of global war. With raining bombs and fiscal strong-arming out, Bush really has just one recoursetalk therapy.
A prime candidate for such treatment, North Korea's general secretary, Kim Jong Il, has been portrayed as a wacko in the American press. Yet he has been politely going along with a policy of rapprochement with South Korea, looking forward to joint economic projects, and even at one point talking about some sort of loose federation between the two nations.
North Korea has been much less conciliatory toward the other Asian powers, launching missiles over Japanese territory and fueling the hysteria of hawks there who'd like to build a war machine, replete with nuclear weapons, and to set up their own missile defense system or crawl in beneath ours.
It must be galling for the Bush administration to be held hostage by a pariah state with no friends and an economy that barely functions. In his book The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, Don Oberdorfer paints a bleak picture of life under Kim Jong Il, who pours much of his resources into developing the military. Oberdorfer writes of an industrial sector crippled by lack of fuel. Homes go unheated, and oxcarts and bikes have replaced automobiles. Farmers are scraping by without fertilizer, and what reduced crops they produce can't be moved to market. Food is so scarce North Koreans have taken to eating "oak leaves, grasses, roots, tree bark," he reports. Empty factories have been dismantled and turned into scrap metal to be traded across the Chinese border for food.
The nation's most famous defector, Jang Yop Hwang, a former high official, spoke of vast repression. "Anyone who conducts demonstrations or shows the slightest anti-government color, anyone who says or does anything humiliating the authority of the leader, is secretly shot to death," he told Oberdorfer. "From the intellectuals' standpoint, it can be said without hesitation that the entire country is a large prison."
As for Kim Jong Il, "his political and artistic sense is very sharp, and his brain functions fast. Since he has only been worshipped by the people without being controlled by anyone, he has never experienced any hardships," Hwang said. "As a result he got to be impatient and has a violent character. He worshipped Germany's Hitler. He never consults with anyone else. No one can make a direct telephone call to him, no matter how high his or her position is. He considers the party and military as his own and does not care about the national economy."
If Bush needed a bogeyman scary enough to push his missile defense shield through, he's gotten it. The program was a key plank in his 2000 campaign. And just in mid December he announced the U.S. would put parts of the system into operation next year. That reportedly entails setting up 10 ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska, to be followed with another 10 by 2006. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that the system, opposed by China and Russia, will be able to intercept only a "relatively small number of incoming ballistic missiles."
With a guy like Kim Jong Il starving his own peopleand many of them with relatives in Seoulit's perhaps surprising that young South Koreans bear scant animus toward the North. Instead, they have a sense of camaraderie against an imperial America out to bully the world. Anti-Americanism is becoming endemic to South Korea. As Ben Ball recently wrote in The Christian Science Monitor, "South Koreans tell me how their water is polluted by the local U.S. military base, how American soldiers commit serious crimes that go unpunished, and how South Koreans are profiled as North Korean agents at U.S. airports." Last month 100,000 people demonstrated against America in Seoul, after a U.S. military court acquitted the soldiers who'd run over two South Korean girls with a tank. Subsequent apologies had no effect.