WASHINGTONAs the war on Iraq got down to business last week with the heaviest air bombardments in 10 years, the Bush administration's dillydallying over North Korea made diplomatic resolution of that crisis increasingly difficult. The more shuffling by Bush, the wider the opening for war hawks here and in Pyongyang to turn diplomatic misunderstandings into a fighting war. Last week four Senate hawks introduced legislation to get tough with North Korea. One of them, John McCain, wants to formally confront North Korea with the threat of a preemptive strike.
There's no question but that North Korea is a dangerous place that broke its nuclear agreements, threw out the UN inspectors, and openly threatens to bury the Korean peninsula in a bloodbath. But it is also true that the U.S. has not kept its side of the bargain struck during the Clinton administration in 1994. That agreement called for the U.S. to help North Korea with fuel and to build two nuclear power plants. In addition, the U.S. agreed to accept the existence of North Korea and agreed not to attack it. To date, the power plants have not even been begun, and rather than recognize North Korea's existence, the Bush national security doctrine threatens preemptive strikes against rogue states in the axis of evil, including North Korea.
As Selig Harrison, the Korean expert at the Center for International Policy in Washington, reports, when U.S. negotiator James Kelly met with North Korea's first deputy foreign minister, Kang Sok Ju, on October 4, the North Koreans offered to halt development of weapons-grade plutonium if the U.S. would drop its policy of preemptive strikes.
But in the current circumstances such a step would represent a tremendous loss of credibility for Bush and as a practical matter seems impossible. Last September, Bush promulgated his national security doctrine, which explicitly singled out North Korea as a dangerous rogue state "developing its own WMD arsenal" and went on to set forth Dick Cheney's pet preemptive strike doctrine: "Traditional concepts of deterrence will not work against a terrorist enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction and the targeting of innocents. . . . To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."
Last week three conservative Republican senatorsArizona's Jon Kyl and John McCain and Alabama's Jeff Sessionsjoined with Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh in sponsoring legislation to reinstitute sanctions against North Korea and require congressional approval for any nuclear cooperation agreement. As Kyl put it, "North Korea must feel some pressure to begin to dismantle its nuclear programs." And McCain, the most vociferous hawk on Capitol Hill, wrote in The Weekly Standard, "America's challenge in Asia is to compel North Korea's nuclear disarmament. . . . If we fail to achieve the international cooperation necessary to end this threat, then the countries in the region should know with certainty that while they may risk their own populations, the United States will do whatever it must to guarantee the security of the American people."
Congressional hawks are joined by hard-liners in the Bush administration, including Cheney's national security point man, Lewis "Scooter" Libby (a protégé of Nixon's lawyer Leonard Garment and a longtime lawyer for fugitive financier Marc Rich), along with Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who is chief arms control negotiator. It's "an evil regime," Bolton has said of North Korea.
As the hawks become more strident, there are bound to be questions of a coup. To date, Kim Jong Il has dexterously maneuvered his way amid various factions by placing family members in key army posts, and then moving his own power base away from the ruling Workers Party to the military, which official North Korean organs have been celebrating recently as a "perfect mode of politics" because "our revolutionary philosophy is that the Army is precisely the Party, people, and state."
What's going to happen in the Arab world when Al-Jazeera or some other TV network broadcasts pictures of American soldiers killing Saddam Hussein's force of child soldiers?
Among the nightmares confronting the American military as they develop their war strategy is Saddam's plan to protect Baghdad with thousands of human shields, including some 8000 child soldiers who have been trained to stage ambushes, act as snipers, and throw together roadblocks. Drilled in units with such monikers as Saddam's Lion Cubs, children 10 to 15 reportedly spend 14 hours a day absorbing political propaganda and weapons training. Upon graduation, they join a paramilitary force that functions as an internal police corps. Peter W. Singer, of the Brookings Institution, who has just published a report on the kid soldiers, compares them to the Hitler Youth who fought in the battle for Berlin, and says they can "operate with unexpected and terrifying audacity."
Killing child soldiers is sure to become a big part of U.S. military training. "There are some 300,000 children under the age of 18 (both boys and girls) presently serving as combatants around the globe, fighting in approximately 75 percent of the world's conflicts," reports Singer. About half of Iraq's 22 million people are under the age of 18, he says.
The following is an excerpt from a press briefing given by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on January 6:
HELEN THOMAS (Hearst columnist and longtime UPI White House correspondent): At the earlier briefing, Ari, you said that the president deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world? And I have a follow-up.
FLEISCHER: I refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack on Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. And the president, as he said in his statement yesterday, deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.
THOMAS: My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?
FLEISCHER: Helen, the question is how to protect Americans, and our allies and friends
THOMAS: They're not attacking you.
FLEISCHER: from a country
THOMAS: Have they laid a glove on you or on the United States, the Iraqis, in 11 years?
FLEISCHER: I guess you have forgotten about the Americans who were killed in the first Gulf War as a result of Saddam Hussein's aggression then.
THOMAS: Is this revenge, 11 years of revenge?
FLEISCHER: Helen, I think you know very well that the president's position is that he wants to avert war, and that the president has asked the United Nations to go into Iraq to help with the purpose of averting war.
In a recent speech, Thomas said, "I have never covered a president who actually wanted to go to war. Bush's policy of preemptive war is immoralsuch a policy would legitimize Pearl Harbor. It's as if they learned none of the lessons from Vietnam."
Additional reporting: Josh Saltzman and Rebecca Winsor
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.