Korea, South and North, at Risk
South Koreans are no doubt watching the "multilateral" talks between the United States, North Korea and China with great interest, but they would do well to chart their own course to security on the Korean peninsula.
South Korea is obviously worried about the North's decision to arm itself with a "tremendous military deterrent." But over the last two years, South Korean public opinion has shifted radically on the issue of North Korea. The South no longer fears the hungry, oppressed and well-armed North as much as they fear Washington's enthusiasm for war.
New South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has pledged to continue opening to the North. His incoming administration is said to have told Bush that South Korea would rather live with a nuclear North than join the United States in another war. On Feb. 12, 2003, no doubt as a way to pressure the Roh government and punish it for its positions, the Pentagon announced that it was considering withdrawing some of the troops that have been based in South Korea since 1953.
On April 9, the day Baghdad fell, the Pentagon and the Roh government started negotiations over the future of U.S. forces in the region. The U.S. delegation showed extraordinary impatience to move the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division back from the Demilitarized Zone. One source quoted Adm. Thomas Fargo, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, as saying, "I'd like to be out yesterday." As it was meant to do, this threw fear into South Korea that a sudden redeployment of U.S. troops out of harm's way would not only look to the North like preparations for a pre-emptive strike, but might prove to be so.
Equally ominous, the United States sent B-1 and B-52 strategic bombers to Guam "in case they might be needed in Korea." Radar-evading F-117 stealth fighter jets, highly suitable for attacking targets like the nuclear plant at Yongbyon, will also remain in South Korea for now. The last time F-117s were based in South Korea was in 1994, when the Clinton administration was contemplating a "surgical strike" on the North.
Such a strike, this time against the Yongbyon reactor, may well come after U.S. troop deployments in Iraq are reduced. The United States may even attempt "regime change" to consolidate its imperial position on the Korean peninsula.
President Roh continues to stress a "sunshine policy" of greater openness toward the North. For that to work, he must quickly distance himself from the Americans and their warlike posture. In recent weeks, however, his government has rushed to mollify Washington, reassuring the Bush administration that it wants American troops near the border and even sending about 700 noncombatants to Iraq as part of the "coalition" effort to wage war.
If President Roh were to ask American troops to leave South Korea altogether, with perhaps only a treaty promising an American "nuclear umbrella" in case the North ever did use nuclear weapons, a reconciliation between the two Koreas might come very speedily. The South risks little by trying this strategy, since its own armed forces are fully capable of matching any Northern threat short of a nuclear attack.
On the other hand, if it sticks with the Americans, the South risks everything. Even if Yongbyon is destroyed, Kim Jong-il has enough conventional weaponry (and perhaps even a nuclear bomb at a secret locale) to destroy Seoul, which is less than 50 miles from the demilitarized zone. The North Korean people, especially the highly disciplined, heavily regimented armed forces, will fight hard to retain control over their homeland, even if they hate their leader.
No one knows this better than the South Koreans, who feel exactly the same way about their half of the peninsula.
Time may be running out for the South Koreans, who may waste the next few months trying to convince Washington that this crisis can best be handled by diplomacy. Washington's chicken hawks will try to soothe their fears about a preventive war with talk of precision-guided missiles, a commitment to avoiding civilian casualties, and talk of "liberation."
Now that the generation that fought the Korean War is passing from the scene, the time is ripe for more flexible approaches to resolve this last remaining Cold War legacy. In the United States, however, the departure of this generation has apparently created such a case of historical amnesia that a new generation is preparing to start a war there all over again. Young South Koreans shouldn't let that happen.
Chalmers Johnson is author of "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire" and, forthcoming, "The Sorrows of Empire: How the Americans Lost Their Country."