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     Jul 7, 2006
N Korea's ace threatens US-Seoul alliance
By Donald Kirk

LONDON -- The volley of missiles fired by North Korea confronts Washington with a challenge that no amount of yakking in the United Nations or tut-tutting in Washington is likely to answer. The maestro of North Korean strategy, Kim Jong-il, believes President George W Bush has no cards to play, as one South Korean analyst put it, and North Korea can do whatever it pleases to grab attention.

While bogged down in Iraq, all the United States is doing for now is issuing statements while privately urging its South Korean ally to back down from its policy of reconciliation with North Korea. At the least, South Korea may be expected to ignore North Koreaís request for half a million tons of rice to feed its near-starving

people, whose interests Kim would prefer to sacrifice on the altar of a show of military power.

Amid the rhetoric and histrionics, Kim Jong-il, step by step, appears likely to raise the stakes. Heís already got six to eight, possibly more, nuclear warheads, and itís safe to assume that North Korean scientists and technicians are developing the means to put them on warheads capable of reaching targets near and far.

Right now the target with the most to fear is Japan. The failure of the long-range Taepodong-2 to go anywhere is less than comforting news to the Japanese considering the success of the other missiles - short-range Scuds and mid-range Rodongs - on test flights into the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

North Korea earns about $1.5 billion a year exporting these missiles, and some of their components and technology, to markets mainly in the Middle East. While notoriously inaccurate, they can menace Japan any time while scientists and technicians correct the flaws that make the Taepodong an unreliable instrument of war.

Understandably, the Japanese are more outraged than anyone else by the North Korean display. The Japanese response may have an impact that Kim may not have anticipated. Pressure is building inside Japan to do away with article nine of Japansí post-war "peace constitution" forbidding Japanese forces from going to war against foreign enemies for anything other than the defense of the Japanese islands. Japan already has mounted SAM3 missiles on Aegis-class destroyers and is installing American Patriot missiles, all to ward off any real threat from North Korea and, in case of some future conflagration, possibly China as well.

The pressure for a shift in Japanese policy is sure to increase, especially since Japan in recent years has become increasingly conservative. One result of this pressure is that the US-Japan alliance, strained during periods when the Japanese perceived no real need for American military support, has tightened. Japan and the US appear likely to grow still closer militarily as they build up defenses at sea and on land.

The renaissance of Japanese military strength will increase tensions throughout the region, notably between China and Japan and between South Korea and Japan - not to mention China and South Korea versus the United States.

In fact, Kim's greatest success may have been to deepen the divisions that raise serious questions about the future of the US-South Korean alliance.

The launch of the North Korean missiles hardly fazed South Koreans, who saw the whole show as just another one of those gestures that may make headlines for a few days but bear little relevance to daily life on the streets of Seoul. "We're worried but not that worried," one South Korean told Asia Times Online. "If South Korea were still in the World Cup, this wouldn't even be the top news."

Under the circumstances, South Korean leaders would just as soon avoid taking sides in the great debate in the United Nations on sanctions against North Korea. Why exacerbate tensions, South Korean officials reason, by supporting sanctions while China and Russia are sure to veto them, turning debate in the UN into another meaningless war of words?

In fact, it may come as a shock to Americans, but many South Koreans would be likely to defend North Koreaís right to test-fire missiles - and even to have nuclear warheads - if needed for "defense" against the Japanese. Japanís Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has regularly antagonized Chinese and Koreans by visits to the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japanís war dead, including war criminals responsible for conquering much of the rest of Asia and plunging Japan into World War II.

Memories of Japanese colonial cruelty are deeply implanted in the collective psyche of Koreans, North and South, as well as Chinese.

The United States may try to exercise a kind of pax Americana, negotiating and temporizing, but North Korea is sure to keep on testing missiles - and developing nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction - while demanding significant American concessions. As of now these include one-on-one negotiations - that is, direct talks between US and North Korean diplomats - as well as the lifting of restrictions put into place by the US Treasury Department in response to North Korean currency counterfeiting.

Christopher Hill, the US envoy on North Korea, is now visiting Asia, stopping off in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo, trying to build up pressure for North Korea to return to six-party talks in Beijing on its entire nuclear weapons program. Within that framework, he argues, he would be glad to chat it up yet again with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Gye-gwan, just as he did when the parties last met in Beijing last fall.

North Korea has chosen to boycott the talks while demanding the US lift economic "sanctions" against counterfeiting. The US denies having actually imposed "sanctions". Rather, the US Treasury Department bars foreign firms from doing business with US banks and other institutions if they also do business with North Korea. The most visible result was the decision by Banco Delta Asia in Macao to freeze North Korean accounts, through which North Korea had been shipping counterfeit $100 "supernotes".

The United States says it has no choice but to stick to its refusal to negotiate one-on-one and to do whatever it can to stop North Korean counterfeiting. China, earning billions in foreign exchange from its enormous trade surplus with the US, may see the need to exert serious pressure on North Korea to stop testing missiles and developing nukes.

Alarmingly for the region, the US-Japan alliance assumes ever more importance. The US may conceivably wind up with a restraining influence on a renascent Japan. At the least, Japan is already acting unilaterally, cutting off the single link by sea between North Korea and Japan. The Japanese may also block all commerce and communications while tightening restrictions on Koreans living in Japan, an historic focal point of Japanese ire.

The Japanese response is sure to have a terrible rebound effect. Neither China nor South Korea will sympathize. If North Korea suffers still more economically as a result, Kim may regard the loss as an investment well spent. North Korea can only benefit from sowing discord among its powerful neighbors.

One question Kim might ponder is how long he can impose harsh dictatorial rule at home even as military forces build up against him. While his technicians try to figure out how to aim their missiles at specific targets, US and Japanese forces have far more accurate weapons to bring to bear against North Korean bases and missile sites in case the region plunges into war.

Here too, however, North Korea may count on another weapon - that of public opinion in South Korea. While North Korean missiles are of little real concern in Seoul, attack by the US and Japan on North Korean bases would risk massive protests in the South, rendering US bases there either useless or untenable. Kim, in such an event, would have succeeded in his goal of the destruction of the US-South Korean alliance.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.
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