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Playing With Fire in Korea

Why is the Obama Administration creating obstacles and throwing cold water on talks with North Korea, and why is it binding itself to right-wing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, whose politics just took a shellacking in the recent race for mayor of Seoul?

The answer seems to be a convergence of U.S. concerns over the growing power of China, a desperate battle by American arms manufacturers to fend off military budget cuts, and a fantasy by President Lee of a uniting the Korean Peninsula under the banner of the South.

Consider the following:

The day after Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special envoy on North Korea, described two days of talks in Geneva between the Americans and North Koreans as “very positive and generally constructive,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dismissed the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough. “I guess the word skepticism would be in order at this time as to what may or may not happen in those discussions.”

Panetta was in Seoul as part of a weeklong swing through Asia firming up U.S. alliances in the region. The Secretary not only blew off the talks, he threatened the use of atomic weapons. The U.S. he said “will insure a strong and effective nuclear umbrella over the ROK [Republic of Korea] so that Pyongyang never misjudges our will and capacity to respond decisively to nuclear aggression.”

Unless it is raining, President Lee is a dangerous guy to whom to hand an umbrella. According to the Guardian (UK), a Wiki leak cable from the U.S. Embassy says “Lee’s more conservative advisors and supporters sees the current standoff as a genuine opportunity to push and further weaken the North, even if this might involve considerable brinkmanship.”

According to Peter Lee in the Asia Times, “Lee’s dream” is of “unifying the entire peninsula and its population of 75 million under the banner of the democratic, capitalist South in alliance with the United States, replacing Japan as the primary U.S. security and economic partner, and confronting China with the prospect of a major pro-western power on its doorstep while reaching out to the sizable Korean minority in China’s northeastern provinces.”

While at first glance Lee’s “dream” would seem more poppy-induced than policy driven, South Korean -U.S. joint maneuvers have war gamed scenarios that envision a North Korean collapse and a subsequent intervention by Washington and Seoul. In August of last year, an 11-day drill involving 56,000 South Koreans and 30,000 Americans—Ulchi Freedom Guardian— practiced exactly that.

According to the Korea Times, Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, the exercise was aimed at responding “to various types of internal instability in North Korea,” which is a rather different mission than the one that Panetta was talking about during his Seoul visit.

And the North is not the only target in these exercises.

During a visit to Italy in October, Panetta said, “We’re concerned about China. The most important thing we can do is to project our force into the Pacific—to have our carriers there, to have our fleet there, to be able to make very clear to China that we are going to protect international rights to be able to move across the oceans freely.”

Coincidently, naval forces, with their $5 billion aircraft carriers, numerous support vessels, submarines, and high tech aircraft are expensive, big-ticket items that arms companies are fighting to keep in the military budget.

The month before the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill, the U.S. and South Korea carried out a major naval exercise in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea that included the aircraft carrier George Washington Certainly China had no illusions about the objective of the war game. “In history, foreign invaders repeatedly took the Yellow Sea as an entrance to enter the heartland of Beijing and Tianjin,” said Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, deputy secretary general of the Academy of Military Science. “The drill area is only 500 kilometers away from Beijing,” adding a metaphor from Mao that seems to lose something in the translation: “We will never allow others to keep snoring beside our bed.”

It was the second time in less than a year that an American carrier had taken part in maneuvers in an area China considers a “military zone.”

Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have continually put pre-conditions on any negotiations with the north, including ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and accepting responsibility for the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in September, 2010 that killed 46 sailors.

This past January when Kim Jong-il said Pyongyang was “ready to meet anyone anytime anywhere,” U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that before any talks, North Korea “needs to demonstrate its sincerity” by getting rid of its nuclear weapons and admitting to culpability in the Cheonan incident.

A delegation to North Korea aimed at easing tensions, featuring former president Jimmy Carter, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, former Irish president Mary Robinson and ex-Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, was ignored by Washington and dismissed by South Korean Foreign minister Kim Sung-Hwan as a “purely personal” trip.

According to Seoul, the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo, but that conclusion is hardly a slam-dunk. The team of “international experts” that examined the evidence was handpicked by the South Korean military, and Russian and Chinese experts who examined the evidence are not convinced. Indeed, a poll commissioned by Seoul University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies found that only 32.5 percent of South Koreans were confident in the findings.

North Korea is hardly going to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons while its two major enemies are designing war games to “stabilize” Pyongyang in the advent of major unrest. The recent NATO bombing of Libya certainly caught the attention of the North Koreans, who essentially said that it would never have happened if the Gaddafi regime had not abandoned its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Libya is “teaching the international community a grave lesson” an unnamed Foreign Ministry official told the Korean Central News, “The truth that one should have power to defend peace.”

South Korean President Lee and the U.S. have put the onus for current standoff with North Korea on China. “I think China can do more to try to get North Korea to do the right thing,” argued Panetta, while Lee said he hoped that “China will continue to play an important role in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and leading North Korea to reform and openness.”

According to the New York Times, President Obama told Chinese President Hu Jintao that unless Beijing took a “harder line” toward North Korea, the U.S. would increase its buildup of military forces in Northeast Asia.

There is no question that Beijing has influence in Pyongyang—China is North Korea’s main trading partner—but the theory that the Chinese can simply dictate to the North Koreans is a myth. In any case, since China is convinced that the U.S. military buildup in Asia is directed at them, not impoverished North Korea, why would Beijing expend political capital to aid potential adversaries?

The North Korean regime is an odd duck, with a system of succession more akin to the 12th century than the 21st, and a penchant for bombastic rhetoric. But is it a threat to other countries in the region? By the terms of a 1953 treaty, the U.S. would come to South Korea’s defense if the North attacked, and the Pyongyang government is well aware of what would happen to it in a confrontation with the U.S.

If the U.S. is seriously interested in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, it should ratchet down its joint war games with South Korea and stop threatening to use nuclear weapons on China’s doorstep. The U.S. may view North Korea’s nukes as destabilizing, but it was not Pyongyang that introduced nuclear weapons into the region, but the Americans.

The six-party talks, which collapsed in April 2009, may or may not resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, but they are the only game in town. Instead of throwing up roadblocks, and casting its lot with the increasingly unpopular South Korean president, the Obama administration should be pressing to reopen the discussions as a way to dampen tensions in the region and bring the North Koreans to the table.

Conn Hallinan can be reached at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com 

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Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com 

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