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    Korea
     Jan 11, 2005
Bush bereft of good options in North Korea
By Yoel Sano

Despite the neo-conservative clamor for regime change in North Korea and toppling Pyongyang leader Kim Jong-il, US options are extremely limited, with potentially risky, or devastating implications and consequences for Northeast Asia and for the US position in the world.

As US President George W Bush prepares for his second term, the ongoing dispute over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program looms as a major security challenge for his administration. Voices in Washington urging a tougher policy toward Pyongyang are growing louder, with the influential Project for a New American Century (PNAC) think-tank calling for regime change in North Korea. Nonetheless, the US domestic political priorities and international considerations necessitate continuing the "war on terror" over the next few years. Additionally, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, especially Iraq, will continue to dominate US foreign policy objectives. Furthermore, even if Bush eventually were able to focus more attention on the Korean Peninsula, he would find there are few good options available, and all of them carry considerable risks to the United States' standing in Asia and the world.

'War on terror', Iraq still priorities
Bush's November presidential election victory showed that homeland security and the "war on terror" remain uppermost in US voter considerations, especially with Osama bin Laden himself appearing on television just days before the vote. Democratic Party challenger John Kerry's failure to make a campaign issue out of Bush's own failure to bring about complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling (CVID) of North Korea's nuclear weapons program - the administration's stated goal - underscores the low priority with which the US electorate rates events on the Korean Peninsula.

Instead, the "war on terror" and instability in Iraq and the wider Middle East, will constitute more pressing challenges for Bush in his second term. The situation in Iraq is still volatile, with the US troop presence there being increased temporarily from 138,000 to 150,000, ahead of Iraq's first elections on January 30. Saudi Arabia also remains a concern, with fears that the pro-US royal family is losing control of the country, and by extension oil supplies vital to the United States.

Furthermore, the US administration has been ratcheting up the pressure on Iran with regard to the latter's suspected nuclear-weapons program. In essence, the US wishes to nip the Iranian nuke threat in the bud, before Tehran manages to acquire nuclear-weapons capabilities, which North Korea has been using so successfully to deter Washington from taking a more aggressive stance toward Pyongyang.

All these factors will give North Korean leader Kim Jong-il some breathing space from America's wrath. Meanwhile, Bush will find that his options with regard to Pyongyang are very limited, and all of them carry key dangers, which, if unleashed, could leave the US in a position worse off than before.

Option 1: Do nothing
First, the administration could leave the Korean Peninsula alone while it deals with the Middle East. This policy of "benign neglect" was apparent during late 2002 and much of 2003, when Bush was preoccupied with the buildup to the war in Iraq, the conflict itself, and its aftermath. The key dangers of this policy are that it makes the US seem weak and allows Pyongyang both to openly defy Washington and increase its nuclear capability at the same time. The more nuclear weapons Pyongyang comes to possess, the more threatening it becomes to the US and its allies in the region, Japan and South Korea - even if the nuclear ratio is overwhelmingly skewed in America's favor.

Furthermore, inaction sends the message to America's two main Asian allies that Washington is disinterested in their security concerns. That situation, if left unattended, could persuade Tokyo and Seoul to develop their own nuclear weapons. This in turn would undermine US strategic influence in Northeast Asia, since one of Washington's unstated reasons for disarming North Korea is to ensure that Japan and South Korea have no reasons to develop their own nuclear weapons and remain non-nuclear powers.

If the two nations went nuclear, they could quickly develop more independent strategic postures, which would not necessarily dovetail with the United States' grand strategy of remaining the world's sole superpower.

Option 2: Restart the six-way talks
During the second half of 2003 and for much of 2004, the US attempted to forge a multilateral solution to its dispute with North Korea by bringing South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia onboard the six-way talks. Washington's idea was to build a united front to pressure Pyongyang into giving up its nukes. However, Beijing's and Moscow's traditionally pro-Pyongyang leanings (though not without misgivings, and compounded by misgivings about US intentions) meant that North Korea could rely on disagreements and divisions between the larger powers to delay and stall the negotiation process. Once the US election campaign was underway, Pyongyang abandoned the talks, apparently hoping that Democratic nominee John Kerry would offer it a better deal if he won.

Kerry lost, but Bush still has the option of re-starting the six-way talks. The trouble with this approach is that Pyongyang will still be able to delay and stall any meaningful concessions to the US. It is conceivable that North Korea could even stretch the discussions over the course of the next four years, perhaps counting on continued instability in the Middle East, and the possibility of a (potentially more moderate) Democratic Party candidate winning the 2008 US presidential election, while building up its nuclear capabilities and negotiating from a position of even greater strength when it eventually feels ready. As with Option 1 (do nothing: benign neglect), if Japan and South Korea see no progress, they may quietly prepare to go nuclear themselves.

Option 3: Engage in direct talks with North Korea
This was the strategy suggested by Kerry, and was one that Pyongyang also favored, but which Bush rejected. Bush did not want to be seen as "rewarding" North Korea for its deceit, and also did not want to be seen as excluding allies Japan and South Korea, or regional powers China and Russia from the nuclear dispute. If Bush were suddenly to engage North Korea directly, he would be seen as flip-flopping (something which his supporters constantly accused Kerry of doing), and at the same time, this could raise fears in Tokyo (and to a lesser extent, Seoul) that its security interests were being excluded from US-North Korea negotiations.

The bigger danger with Washington-Pyongyang talks stems from the possibility that the US and North Korea might be unable to agree to each other's demands at all. This would leave them back where they started. Or, Pyongyang could appear to accept Washington's terms and sign an agreement, only for the US to discover years later (or sooner) that North Korea had deceived it yet again, as has been the case in the past. Under such a scenario, the US might be tempted to force regime change in Pyongyang or attack North Korea militarily in order to bring about a final solution to its nuclear-weapons program.

Option 4: Pursue peaceful regime change in Pyongyang
If the US cannot force a change of behavior by North Korea's leaders, it can attempt to bring about regime change in Pyongyang itself. This would not require the collapse of the country as a whole, but would require new and more moderate figures to take charge in Pyongyang.

The main obstacle to this strategy is that the United States has very limited means by which to change the government in Pyongyang. North Korea has long been considered an "intelligence black hole" by US officials. By contrast, intelligence services in China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan are thought to have a better understanding of the regime and greater contacts with officials there, either through diplomatic representation or through underground organizations. Therefore, the road to regime change lies with persuading China - North Korea's main patron - to bring this about. However, Beijing is more keen to preserve stability on the Sino-North Korean border, for fear of triggering an influx of hungry North Korean refugees into northeastern China. Beijing leaders are unlikely to engage in any moves that could destabilize its neighbor, though it has tried to demonstrate the benefits of economic reform and greater openness to Pyongyang.

South Korean leaders have the same concerns. Seoul needs to delay the collapse of North Korea as long as possible, preferably until the North has attained a higher level of economic development, so that eventual reunification costs will be lower - it dreads an East Germany/West Germany scenario, extremely costly to the west, after the Berlin Wall came down.

There is a possibility that an aggressive and anti-Pyongyang South Korean president would be elected in December 2007 and take office in February 2008, but by that time he would have only a limited time to work with Bush against the North before the US president would leave office.

The US does have the option of seeking to trigger a coup in North Korea by conducting aggressive military exercises designed to panic Pyongyang's leaders and sow confusion in their minds. The existence of this plan, known as OPLAN 5030, was revealed in July 2003, but would likely require the cooperation of South Korea's leaders, who oppose such moves as they seek to implement their own policy of brotherhood and appeasement with the North.

Option 5: A military strike against North Korea
This is by far the most dangerous option, and as such, should be considered only as a last resort, or preferably not at all. In theory, the US could carry out heavy air strikes against suspected North Korean nuclear and related facilities (a "surgical strike"), or aim for a wider shock-and-awe-style campaign to capture Pyongyang and take over North Korea. The US military has for decades possessed contingency plans for repelling a Northern invasion of the South, and in 1998 details leaked of a plan (OPLAN 5027) to militarily conquer and occupy the North once its forces had been driven back.

The main obstacle to an Iraq-style US attack on North Korea - apart from the fact that US forces are already stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan - is the high probability that Pyongyang would unleash a devastating retaliation against South Korea and even Japan, using its 12,500-strong artillery pieces against the former, and shorter-range (and possibly chemical or nuclear-tipped) missiles against the latter. One US study at the time of the 1994 nuclear crisis suggested that 52,000 American and 490,000 South Korean military personnel could be killed or injured during the first 90 days in a new Korean conflict, which could cost at least US$61 billion. General Gary Luck, the US commander in Korea at the time, estimated that up to one million people could die, including 80,000-100,000 Americans, and the war could cost $100 billion in damages. The total damage to property and disruption to business and economic activity in the region was reckoned at $1 trillion.

With this in mind, while Seoul and Tokyo fear Pyongyang's possession of nuclear weapons, they will oppose any US moves toward a military solution to the dispute, since they fear the fallout from a regional war. Han Tae-kyu, the head of South Korea's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, was recently quoted by the South's Yonhap News Agency as saying that "without consent from neighboring countries, it is impossible for the US to take military action on the Korean Peninsula and neighboring countries do not want it".

Although the US military could counter Pyongyang's retaliation by using tactical nuclear weapons against North Korea, the international outcry would further undermine the United States' global standing, at a time when it is already under fire because of the Iraq war and President Bush's foreign policies. According to declassified US documents recently obtained by the Japanese news agency Kyodo, the Pentagon has a plan to use 30 nuclear warheads against North Korea, in the event of a new crisis on the peninsula. While this would ensure that Pyongyang was disarmed, it would be tantamount to "creating a wasteland, and calling it peace", in the words of the Roman historian Tacitus.

Even if the US were to march into Pyongyang and topple statues of North Korea's founder and late Great Leader Kim Il-sung, and those of his son Kim Jong-il, there would be the likelihood that die-hard elements of the old regime would fight on, if not out of love for the Kim dynasty, then out of sheer patriotism honed by decades of anti-US propaganda. While some doubt whether North Korea's 1.2 million-strong armed forces are up to the fight, Pyongyang also possesses the world's largest special forces, which number over 100,000. Even if a small fraction of them were to wage a guerrilla warfare, it would tie down the US in a costly war and occupation, on top of the one already bogging US forces down in Iraq.

These diehard elements could receive official or unofficial support from China. As well as opposition to a military solution from South Korea and Japan, Beijing also would dread any US military activity right on its doorstep, fearing that this would lead to a semi-permanent US military presence there, which could be aimed eventually against China. As such, a key factor in any US war calculations is whether China would send troops to defend North Korea from any American attack. An audit of South Korea's Defense Ministry in the country's National Assembly in October 2004 reckoned that China would deploy as many as 400,000 troops in support of the North, if it came to war. Any new Korean conflict would therefore severely strain Sino-US ties.

In essence, the choice for Washington in terms of attacking North Korea or not attacking may be one of disarming North Korea and risking the destruction of both Koreas and war with China on the one hand, or leaving America vulnerable to North Korean threats, but keeping both Koreas physically intact, and relations with China normal.

Given that a new Korean war could become a quasi-world war, Bush has every reason to avoid this.

New policy: 'Regime transformation'
The Bush administration recognizes the dangers involved, and appears to be backing away from a confrontational stance with North Korea. Bush's incoming national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, recently suggested that the US would not seek to overthrow the regime in Pyongyang, but would instead seek "regime transformation" by means of encouraging economic reform in the North. These remarks were echoed by US assistant secretary of state James Kelly to Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper in late December.

If this is indeed the case, the Bush administration may well have chosen Option 4 "lite" (Pursue peaceful regime change in Pyongyang), albeit without precluding other options, while at the same time seeking to restart the six-way talks (Option 2). As such, given Washington's preference for a gradual approach, it seems that Bush is willing to take the risk that the nuclear dispute may not necessarily be concluded before he leaves office in January 2009. However, this policy has already drawn criticism. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine last November, "Most people in the present administration judge the [former president Bill] Clinton administration harshly for bequeathing to posterity a more serious international terrorist threat than it inherited - and rightly so. If North Korea's threat to America is greater four years from now than today, that will be a Bush administration legacy. And history is unlikely to judge such a legacy kindly."

A new 'red line'
Nonetheless, the real question now facing the Bush administration is whether it can tolerate a nuclear North Korea. In the past, the US feared that Pyongyang's possession of nukes would allow it to deter the United States from intervening to save South Korea from a Northern invasion. But North Korea in 2005 is far more preoccupied with regime survival than conquering the South. To this end, it seeks to possess nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantee that the US does not mount an Iraq-style invasion of the country. So long as both Pyongyang and Washington understand this, they could probably coexist, albeit uneasily.

For the US, the ultimate nightmare is that Pyongyang will sell a nuclear device to al-Qaeda, thereby "posing an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities", in the words of former US defense secretary William Perry. Therefore, it appears that the Bush administration has unofficially imposed a "red line", which if crossed, could trigger war. This red line would be any action by Pyongyang to transfer nuclear weapons or elements of such a device outside the country, to groups such as al-Qaeda. Although Pyongyang has denounced any moves to set a "red line", it is unlikely to cross such limits. This would directly tie Pyongyang with the "war on terror" and bring North Korea immediately to the forefront of US priorities, even ahead of the Middle East.

So long as the "war on terror" is still under way and Iraq - and the wider Middle East - is still unstable, and Pyongyang keeps a reasonably low profile, North Korea will have a degree of breathing space. No one should be surprised if the US-North Korea nuclear dispute is still unresolved by the time the next American president takes office.

Yoel Sano has worked for publishing houses in London, providing political and economic analysis, and has been following Northeast Asia for many years yoelsano@lycos.com .

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Seoul's double-talk on reunification
(Jan 4, '05)

NE Asia alarmed by US tougher NK stance
(Dec 10, '04)

Hawks push for N Korea regime change
(Nov 24, '04)

Seoul rows against the US tide
(Nov 24, '04)

Seoul, Tokyo and the forbidden nuclear card
(Oct 7, '04)

Nuclear genie out of S Korean bottle
(Sep 8, '04)

 
 

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