U.S. Confronts a Modern `Hermit Kingdom'

Article excerpt

In 1894, Korea was the subject of a war between Japan and China, an event of tectonic consequences in international affairs for the next 100 years.

Korea, called "land of the morning calm" by the Chinese, was squeezed among three empires - China, in decline; Japan, ascending, and Russia, seeking to consolidate and extend its reach in Asia. Korea fell violent victim to imperial competition and passed from nominal Chinese control to Japan's sphere of influence in 1895.

Korea is also the land bridge between Japan and resource-rich Manchuria and northeast China. In 1904-05, Japan and Russia waged a bitter struggle over whose interests would prevail. Though temporarily exhausted from the costly effort, Japan emerged the victor. As a result the Japanese tightened their hold over Korea, formally annexing it in 1910.

One hundred years after the 1894-95 war - there was a second conflict (1950-53) in between - Korea remains a focus of world attention. It is no longer under Japanese dominance; that ended in 1945 with Japan's military defeat in World War II. Korea is the only country to remain geographically divided as the result of the recently expired Cold War.

Korea's strategic importance has not diminished; nor has its potential for provoking the concerns of world powers. This is, in no small part, because of the legacies of the last Korean War, but it is also because of the enhanced currency of arms, including nuclear-capable weapons in the markets of the world, especially the Middle East and Asia.

Its economy severely constrained and its political future in doubt as the 82-year-old Kim Il Sung approaches the close of his one-man rule, North Korea has, for some time, been seeking to break out of its isolation from the world.

What does North Korea, signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, intend by its refusal to permit wider inspection of its nuclear facilities? For nearly a year, North Korea has sought to negotiate longstanding issues of diplomatic and economic relations, particularly with the United States, Japan and South Korea. The absence of such engagement serves to promote North Korean arms exports, including missiles to the Middle East, in search of foreign exchange.

The North Koreans have few cards to play. Their nuclear program and threats to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty are their bargaining chips. That the Yongbyon nuclear complex possesses the potential for manufacturing nuclear bombs is indisputable. That the North Koreans may already have a bomb is possible, though not yet demonstrated. …