Korean War II?

By Cumings, Bruce | The Nation, July 4, 1994 | Go to article overview

Korean War II?


Cumings, Bruce, The Nation


President Clinton has put himself in a fine mess with North Korea. He has failed to pursue a consistent diplomacy to defuse the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear program, and his Administration tends to think that the world--whether China, Bosnia, Haiti or North Korea--should live up to American standards of good behavior. It's a bad idea, and it only gets worse if you can't make it work and can't pay the cost. We can't pay the cost in Korea.

There is no solution to the problem outside the diplomatic track. Sanctions will not work. Japan is afraid to antagonize the 250,000 Koreans in Japan who are loyal to the North, not because they might "resort to terrorism" as the pundits say but because it would draw attention to the apartheid-like discrimination still suffered by second- and third-generation Koreans in Japan. China will not implement any serious sanctions either, because it still shares common interests with North Korea: for example, a failure to understand why the United States continues to spy on it and tell it what to do regarding such areas as arms sales to the Middle East and human rights. As for North Korea, sanctions are nothing new: We have had a trade embargo on Pyongyang for forty years, and the heightened tensions of recent weeks merely return its leaders to the familiar cold war script of threat and counterthreat that they have lived with since the Korean War.

The only other choice is to use force, which is much more frequently discussed in Washington than the public realizes. Of course, the problems with this are legion. The experience of the Korean War, when the United States controlled the skies and rained a terrible destruction on the country, forced North Korea to dig deep and move underground; the command and control centers of North Korea's army are so well hidden that US. military planners don't know where to find them. An Israeli-style raid on the Yongbyon nuclear reactor would also be futile because reprocessed plutonium may be buried somewhere else in the country.

When the North Koreans seized the U.S. spy ship Pueblo in 1968, and again when they shot down a US. spy plane in 1969, both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon toyed with the idea of punitive raids, only to learn from the Pentagon that such an action would cause a second Korean War. Today no one can predict with any certainty whether the North Koreans would take a pre-emptive strike lying down or if they would send hundreds of thousands of troops toward Seoul, some thirty-five miles across the border. If it's the latter, millions of Koreans could die and American body bags would come back by the thousands--and that would be the end of the Clinton Administration.

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