What's Left

September 5, 2003

Washington's new approach to North Korea hardly new

By Stephen Gowans

The Bush administration's midcourse corrections in foreign policy -- talk of a greater role for the UN in Iraq and a more flexible approach to talks with North Korea -- are public relations gestures designed to rally support from other countries. They're not real or concrete shifts in policy.

In Iraq, any role for the UN would lead to surface changes alone. Washington would still be in the driver's seat. "American officials have made it clear that the [UN] force would remain under American control, even as political authority in Iraq would continue to be vested in the American civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer III," reported the New York Times today. [1]

Changes in the US position on North Korea, likewise, are more illusion than reality. Indeed, rather than shifting course, Washington is simply taking steps to hold more firmly to the same course.

For decades, North Korea has been a bete noire for Washington, and successive administrations have sought to replace the communist regime with a pro-capitalist government that would preside over a market economy open to US trade and investment on preferential terms.

Before the overthrow of the Soviet Union, and China's slow march to capitalist restoration, regime change in North Korea was an unrealizable goal. North Korea, and its allies, were too strong.

But today, North Korea finds itself isolated, under siege, and desperately short of food and energy. With the right amount of political, economic, and military pressure, it could collapse.

And it's clear the United States is in the process of administering the coup de grace, and has been from the moment the Bush administration declared North Korea part of an axis of evil and announced policies of regime change and preventive war.

U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, has been Washington's point man on North Korea, along with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.
 
These days, Bolton is busy putting together an 11 country coalition to interdict North Korean shipping -- blatantly illegal, and an act of war, but part and parcel of the administration's plan for regime change in Pyongyang. [2]

Once asked by the New York Times to explain the administration's policy on North Korea, Bolton "strode over to a bookshelf, pulled off a volume and slapped it on the table. It was called 'The End of North Korea.'"

"'That,' he said, 'is our policy.'" [3]

Bolton's also infamous for warning North Korea, Syria and Iran to "draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq," after US and British troops toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. [4]

Last November, the Bush administration cancelled the fuel oil shipments the Clinton administration agreed to in return for North Korea mothballing its Yongbyon nuclear reactor (which was capable of producing weapons grade material). Without fuel oil, the country faced a dire energy shortage.

Washington says it withdrew from the agreement because Pyongyang admitted to secretly developing nuclear weapons, a violation of the deal's provisions. North Korea says it made no such admission.

After Washington stopped fuel oil shipments, and construction of two light water reactors came to a halt (they had been part of the deal worked out with the Clinton administration) the country found itself in need of a source of energy to replace the cancelled fuel oil shipments. What's more, it needed a way of deterring Washington from carrying out its open policy of putting an end to North Korea. So Kim's government reactivated the Yongbyon facilities, withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and sent nuclear inspectors packing.

Washington declared this a dangerous development, and insisted talks be held among six nations -- Russia, Japan, China, South Korea, the United States and North Korea - to force North Korea to back down.

Backing down would suit Washington's goals, but what of North Korea's? With the Yongbyon facilities closed, the country would be desperately short of energy, and -- without the deterrent of a nuclear weapons program -- vulnerable to attack by the United States.

So far, the talks haven't been talks in the usual sense of the word, but an occasion for Washington to issue demands to Pyongyang. The United States has refused to negotiate on grounds that concessions would reward what it calls "North Korea's bad behavior."

In exasperation, North Korean officials have declared there's little point in talking if the US is going to refuse to make concessions -- a nonaggression treaty being the chief concession Pyongyang is seeking. (What does it say when a formal commitment to peace is a concession?)

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was reported to be anxious that talks be held, not because they might lead to a settlement, but because he expected them to fail. Failure, Rumsfeld is reported to believe, "would make it easier to rally support from other countries for more economic and political pressure and, eventually, military confrontation." [5]

So far, failure hasn't rallied support from more countries. Instead, China, a party to the talks, has blown the whistle, pointing out that the United States, not North Korea, is the main obstacle to a settlement. [6] And that's prompted the administration to make its midcourse correction.

Now Washington is proposing a step-by-step approach, an effort to show flexibility.

But the step-by-step approach keeps the principal burden on North Korea, forcing Pyongyang to abandon both its nuclear deterrent and shut down its Yongbyon facilities (now a vital source of energy) before Washington gets around to talking about security guarantees.

"[T]he first moves are up to the North Koreans. All of the benefits North Korea most wants energy supplies and formal peace treaties would come only after arms inspectors had free run of the country for 'challenge inspections' of suspected nuclear sites, and after almost all of nuclear infrastructure is shipped out of the country." [7]

This hardly addresses North Korea's concern that it's being asked to drop its gun first. And Pyongyang is acutely aware of what happened in Iraq. Saddam disarmed, and US and British troops attacked. If there's a lesson to be drawn from Iraq, it's not disarm, but build up arms.

Like the administration's midcourse correction on Iraq, this one leaves the fundamentals intact.  Nothing really changes.

According to the New York Times, a senior administration official predicted the North Koreans would never go for the step-by-step approach, and for obvious reasons -- it's no different, in any fundamental way, from the old approach the North Koreans have already rejected. [8]  So why, if it genuinely wants to move toward a settlement, is the Bush administration putting forward a position it knows is unacceptable?

The answer is that Washington has no interest in being flexible, but wants to appear to be moving toward greater openness so blame for the failure of talks can be shifted to Pyongyang when North Korea rejects the new "flexible" offer.

It has been tried before. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's rejection of an NATO ultimatum Washington knew would be unacceptable was used to justify war.

If it works, this midcourse correction could help Washington rally support from other countries for an eventual military confrontation, and for the achievement of a long sought after goal of sweeping away a communist obstacle to total US domination of the Korean peninsula.

1. "France and Germany Differ With U.S. on Plan for Iraq," The New York Times, September 5, 2003.

2. "U.S. and Allies Pursue a Plan to Block Ships Carrying Arms," The New York Times, September 5, 2003.

3. "Absent from the Korea Talks: Bush's Hard-Liner," The New York Times, September 2, 2003.
4. "U.S. Tells Iran, Syria, N. Korea 'Learn from Iraq," Reuters, April 9, 2003.

5. "U.S. Weighs Reward if North Korea Scraps Nuclear Arms," The New York Times, August 13, 2003.

6. "U.S. Said to Shift Approach in Talks With North Korea," The New York Times, September 5, 2003."

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

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