Pyongyang's missiles right on target
By Donald Kirk
LONDON - The search for a face-saving way out of the latest version of the
Korean missile crisis leaves the United States with fast-diminishing options
and risky alternatives.
Go along with one-on-one talks, as demanded by North Korea and advocated by The
New York Times and voices from the Bill Clinton administration, and the US
plunges into lengthy, fitful palaver that has little chance of going anywhere.
Hold fast for a call for sanctions by the United Nations, and the US may go
through the embarrassment of vetoes by China and
Russia - and little if any real support from its "ally", South Korea.
If, by any remote chance, both China and Russia were to abstain rather than
veto a sanction motion by the UN Security Council, North Korea would escalate
the rhetoric, declaring the motion a "declaration of war", while building up
for more missile launches - and, possibly, the dreaded test of one of its
If the UN Security Council settled for a motion of censure, the whole show
would have proven one of those indecisive, time-wasting wars of words with
North Korea loudly proclaiming its right to test its missiles any time it
The other alternative is for the US to side with Japan, the hardest liner of
all in the confrontation, playing into the wishes of Japanese conservatives to
rearm on a major scale while abandoning Article 9 of Japan's post-war "peace
constitution" banning Japanese forces from anything other than defense of
The danger of rising Japanese military power is no longer the abstraction of
newspaper think pieces. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, an
arch-conservative and possible successor to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi,
has said Japan has "the constitutional right of self-defense" and may need to
exercise that right by "attacking the launch base of the guided missiles".
For Japan to carry out that threat would immediately turn what has been an
almost theoretical discussion of choices and risks into a shooting war that
could plunge northeast Asia into chaos and change the balance of power in the
For starters, the US would find there was no way to bring about a "unified
view" among "allies", "friends" or mere acquaintances. The American negotiator,
Christopher Hill, having stopped off in Seoul and Beijing and, finally, Tokyo,
has encountered deep disagreement on how to approach the issue.
His claim that the US and South Korea are as one on how to deal with North
Korea is an exercise in wishful thinking - face-saving for both Washington and
Seoul. Hill's gravest challenge, though, is to persuade the Japanese that the
United States is with them militarily but does not want any shots fired.
The US now has eight Aegis-class destroyers in Japanese waters or between the
Korean peninsula and Japan, and Japan also has Aegis-class destroyers. Their
most salient characteristic is electronic tracking gear and SAM-3
(surface-to-air missiles) that are capable of anti-missile defense - proven on
occasion in tests but never in combat.
Given the uncertainty of these missiles, Japan, as Abe's comments indicate, is
coming around to the view that the best way to eliminate the North Korean
threat may be to destroy the bases. This view is not without support elsewhere.
The US defense secretary in the Clinton administration, William Perry, and his
alter ego, Ashton Carter, who was one of Perry's assistant secretaries, called
for a preemptive strike on the North Korean bases a week before the missile
launch. This view was roundly criticized by other former Clinton people,
notably Wendy Sherman, who journeyed to North Korea with her then boss,
Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, in October 2000 and advocates
one-on-one talks with the North.
While direct talks would only postpone a real solution, a Japanese preemptive
strike on North Korean bases would have a rebound effect of incalculable
The rest of Asia, notably China, would see it as the beginning of a new era of
Japanese imperial pretensions. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators would
turn out on the streets of Seoul and other South Korean cities. Hill and other
US officials may love to talk about North Korea's "isolation", but a Japanese
strike against North Korea would arouse sympathy for the North while
"isolating" Japan and the United States.
The United States has equal - if very different - difficulties in dealing with
Seoul and Beijing. South Korean officials, including Song Min-soon, the
national security adviser and former chief negotiator with North Korea, are
urging a cool and calm approach.
Such talk is code language for doing nothing really effective to stop North
Korea from testing ever more effective missiles while going on with its nuclear
While South Korea has suspended consideration of North Korea's demands for
hundreds of thousands of tons of food and fertilizer, the chances are strong
that South Korea, after a decent interval, will finally go along in its pursuit
of reconciliation with the North.
The South Korean view is that the North Korean missile crisis is not a real
crisis, and there's no reason to exacerbate tensions. If South Korea is in
agreement with any other power, it is probably China, not the United States.
The Chinese, sending a delegation to Pyongyang, hope to bring North Korea back
into the stalled six-party process to deal with its nuclear program while also
bringing about a formula for those one-on-one talks that North Korea badly
wants with the US.
US hopes for China to do much, though, overlook which side China supported, at
a cost of more than a million Chinese dead, in the Korean War more than half a
century ago. China no doubt opposes rekindling the Korean War, but Chinese
intercession is not likely to present a long-term solution.
The short-term Chinese prescription may be for "informal" meetings between Hill
and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Gye-gwan, possibly on the sidelines not
of "formal" six-party talks but of a gathering of diplomats from the six
countries meeting to talk about talks. In that context, both North Korea and
the US would be able to talk over their views, while the US could insist it was
not talking one-on-one.
This kind of diplomacy, though, has no chance of ending up in North Korean
agreement to act on points of basic disagreement. For starters, North Korea is
upset about another issue that receives scant attention these days - namely the
US Treasury's "sanctions" on firms doing business with the North.
That's a result of the US attempt to get North Korea to stop counterfeiting
US$100 "supernotes", which North Korea shipped through Banco Delta Asia (BDA)in
Macau before BDA chose to freeze North Korean accounts rather than risk the
loss of its US business. The US is not going to go along with any compromise
under which North Korea can continue shipping out counterfeit currency.
Nor is North Korea going to shut down its nuclear weapons program without a
massive infusion of billions of dollars of aid, as called for in the 1994
Geneva Framework agreement. That agreement broke down in 2002 with revelation
of North Korea's program for developing nukes with highly enriched uranium, a
program that North Korea denies.
Pyongyang proudly boasts, however, of building nuclear warheads with plutonium
at their core - the program that was suspended under terms of the 1994
agreement - and is not going to stop it. The prospects for resolution get worse
when one considers what the US is up against in South Korea.
What happened to that huge base the US wants to build in Pyongtaek, about 40
miles south of Seoul, to replace other US bases, including the historic US
headquarters in Seoul? Thousands of South Korean police have not been able to
dislodge a few hundred diehard farmers refusing to give up their land.
And what about farmers' objections to a free trade agreement that US and South
Korean negotiators are debating? They threaten to burn US rice imports, and
South Korea wants rice out of the agreement. South Korea also wants the US to
agree to include products made by South Korean companies with North Korean
labor in the industrial zone of Gaesong, just inside North Korea, included in
the free trade agreement.
The US demurs, saying the workers are paid only a pittance, have no negotiating
rights, and there's no way to check what's going on there.
These differences alone reveal the gulf between South Korea and the US. The
North Korean missile shots have landed on target, widening the rift, deepening
the discord, resurrecting the specter of the ancient Japanese foe. There may be
ways to postpone a widening crisis, but no foreseeable way out.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been in and out of Korea since 1972.