Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Is Chimpco pushing the US into a war with North Korea?
The streets of the capital are broad and the buildings monumental. Inside the grand state offices, a power struggle rages among the political elite, and the side that seems to have the upper hand is insulated, single-minded, and shamelessly belligerent. This clique supports a military-first policy that doesn't shrink from the first use of nuclear weapons, a stance that strikes fear into allies and adversaries alike. Nor are these fears soothed by the actions or rhetoric of the leader, a former playboy who owes his position to an irregular political process and the legacy of a more statesmanlike father.

Choose your capital: Pyongyang or Washington?

In the fun house of mirrors in which contemporary global politics is enacted, a strange resemblance has developed between George W. Bush and Kim Jong Il and between their respective war parties. That North Korea is one of the poorest and most desperate countries in the world and the U.S. is the undisputed economic and military leader makes this folie รก deux all the more poignant and ridiculous. The weaker side has exited the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is rushing to develop a nuclear deterrent; the stronger side is after nothing less than regime change. This summer Washington is confronting Pyongyang with a policy of naval interdiction and a tightening chokehold of economic isolation. North Korea is perilously close to treating these encroachments on its sovereignty as tantamount to war. Neither side trusts the other; both refuse to blink.

Such a convergence of opposites is not unheard of in international relations. During the cold war, for instance, the U.S. and the Soviet Union both indulged in a terrifying symmetry of nuclear deterrence, third world interventions, and mistaken budget priorities. But even during the darkest days, Reagan and Gorbachev displayed a personal rapport. In contrast, George W. Bush has called Kim Jong Il a "pygmy" and a "spoiled child" and has confessed to journalist Bob Woodward that he wants to topple the regime in Pyongyang regardless of the consequences. North Korea has repeatedly warned of turning Washington (or Seoul or Tokyo) into a "sea of fire." The extraordinary gap in military and economic capabilities, like a difference in electric potential, has already produced sparks that may yet lead to a conflagration.


Although North Korea pursued its enriched uranium program in the latter days of the Clinton administration, analysts Joel Wit and James Laney suggest that the program accelerated only when the Bush administration cranked up its hostile rhetoric--suspending diplomatic contact, criticizing Kim Dae Jung's engagement policy, and ultimately including Pyongyang in its infamous "axis of evil." Whatever doubts remained in Pyongyang about U.S. intentions were dispelled by the war in Iraq, which led North Korean leaders to draw three conclusions. A nonaggression agreement with the U.S. was pointless. No inspections regime would ever be good enough for Washington. And only a nuclear weapon would deter a U.S. intervention.