The presidential election will decide whether the nation faces a future of war or peace,” said South Korea’s presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun, suggesting that his opponent (and Washington’s favorite) Lee Hoi-chang was the war candidate. He also implied that President George W. Bush’s policies risk war in the Korean peninsula – and spelled his position out for the slower voters. “Just because I haven’t been to the United States, does that make me anti-American?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, what if I am?”
Well, come February Roh Moo-hyun will be South Korea’s president: His victory over Lee in the election on Dec. 19 was narrow but decisive. If Roh takes his own rhetoric seriously, he will be dreading what comes next, for he will shortly have to choose between good relations with the United States and peace with North Korea. In real life, however, things are a lot less black-and-white.
Roh’s facile anti-Americanism ap-peals to younger South Koreans who do not feel the deep psychological need for American approval that was typical of the generation who lived through the disaster of the Korean War. His determination to go on talking to Kim Jong-il’s threadbare Communist regime in North Korea is a continuation of the “Sunshine Policy” begun by his political mentor Kim Dae-jung, the outgoing president, which has already led to some cross-border visits and family reunions after half a century of almost no contact.
President Bush, on the other hand, runs the most confrontational and conservative government that Washington has seen in a very long time. He rejected the idea of further negotiations with the North Korean regime soon after taking office, and then included the country in the “axis of evil” last January. The predictable consequence was that Pyongyang resorted to nuclear blackmail.
North Korea’s economy is in collapse and its population is literally starving, but it still has a nuclear power program and a suspected nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang put both programs on hold in 1994, in return for a promise by the United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union to deliver half a million tons of free oil each year and to build two “proliferation-resistant” pressurized-water nuclear reactors in North Korea. But the reactors never got built, and the rest of the deal unraveled very rapidly this year.
“The problem is that at some point there has to be dialogue with North Korea, and there has been no dialogue since Bush came into office,” says former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg. Pyongyang is not good at dialogue either, and tried to get more aid out of Washington in October by saying that it was still running a uranium-enrichment program. So the Bush administration stopped the oil shipments in November, and North Korea responded last week by restarting the Yongbyon nuclear reactor (closed down under the 1994 deal), whose radioactive waste contains enough weapons-grade plutonium for one or two bombs each year.
It is clear to almost all outside experts, however, that the North Korean regime is looking for a deal: end its weapons program in return for enough aid to stay in power. “Basically, we can buy the North Korean nuclear program, and for not very much money,” explained Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There is a deal here waiting to be made.” But will Washington make it?
Actually, it probably will. Consider, for example, the resounding administration silence that greeted the recent plea by Sen. Bob Graham, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for a shift of target from Iraq to North Korea. “If you put the two, North Korea and Iraq, on the scales and ask the same question – which today is the greater threat to the people of the United States — I would answer the question, North Korea … and I think that needs to be part of the re-balancing of our foreign policy priorities.”
Now the truth, with due respect to Sen. Graham, is that neither country poses any threat whatever to the American people – but North Korea, possessing at least lots of short-range rockets and maybe (just maybe) a nuclear warhead or two, certainly does pose a threat to its immediate neighbors, Japan and South Korea, and to any American troops ordered to attack it. That is why there will be no U.S. attack on North Korea. (Iraq will be attacked precisely because it doesn’t have any serious ‘weapons of mass destruction’, but that is another story.)
So the difference between Seoul and Washington on policy toward North Korea is a lot more about style than substance. Behind the combative manner and paranoid rhetoric of the Bush administration, there is a clear understanding that the North Korean problem will have to be handled by diplomacy, not by military force. And behind Roh Moo-hyun’s rhetorical anti-Americanism is an equally clear understanding that the U.S. alliance remains basic to South Korea’s security. He wants to change the rules that give the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea immunity from local courts, but he definitely wants them to stay.
There is, in other words, a good deal less to all this than meets the eye.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.