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White House Watch

North Korea: The nation progress left behind
Scripps Howard News Service


July 07, 2006

WASHINGTON -- No Man's Land, which stretches eerily between North Korea and South Korea, is like no place else on Earth, a relic of a war ended with an uneasy cease-fire 53 years ago this month.

Panmunjom is a creepy little village in the demilitarized zone between the two countries, where American soldiers and North Korea's communist forces maintain a tense standoff. Americans are warned against flamboyant or provocative clothing, jewelry and gestures. In 1976, two U.S. soldiers were killed there by North Koreans.

North Korea has the world's fifth-largest army, about 1 million active-duty soldiers. It boasts it has nuclear weapons. Even worse, it also has one of the world's most bizarre and ruthless dictators.

Regularly, Kim Jong Il, the "dear leader" and isolated despot of North Korea, reminds the world of his existence by showing his military might and creating crises the United States must recognize. Thumbing his nose by testing intercontinental missiles on the Fourth of July was his most recent effort.

Is there a chance we will go to war against North Korea once again?

The answer is no. But the saber-rattling will not end soon.

Part of President Bush's "axis of evil," North Korea is the most Stalinist regime on Earth. Its people do not have enough to eat, and depend on donations and foraging. (The army always comes first.) But they are thoroughly indoctrinated by a cult of personality, believing Kim Jong Il, brutal though they know him to be, is the source of all national pride and dignity and personal joy they may have.

Staying in power is his primary focus. He believes the best way to do that is to pick fights with the United States, which he believes is a paper tiger. There are about 17,000 U.S. soldiers in South Korea, down from 37,000 a few years ago. South Korea's army technically is about 700,000, but in reality is probably one-third the size of North Korea's. And Kim Jong Il's nukes make him more dangerous than ever.

Yes, his most recent missile tests are believed to have been failures. But eventually they will work. Or he could sell nuclear material to other rogue states or terrorists.

His problem with the United States now is that Bush refuses to negotiate directly with North Korea about its nuclear ambitions but has indicated he will negotiate with Iran, which also wants to be a nuclear power. That angered the potentate of Pyongyang, who defied Bush, China, South Korea and Japan by launching his missiles.

Bush is seeking tougher economic sanctions; China is balking. South Korea is nervously trying to withhold some rice and fertilizer from its impoverished neighbor without escalating tensions. Japan is withholding currency transfers.

In response, North Korea says it will test more missiles whenever it wants to do so, ostensibly to show it can still make and sell them - and perhaps later hit Seoul and Japan and, some day, Alaska, an American territory in the Pacific or even the West Coast. The launches had the effect of raising oil prices even higher and troubling Wall Street, where stock prices fell.

At this point, in addition to winning more toothless resolutions from the United Nations, the United States has no serious options but backdoor diplomacy. The United States alone doesn't have the economic leverage to make much difference, and there is no military option that wouldn't pose a risk to South Korea and Japan.

Bush is trying to maintain a united front against North Korea and persuade China to use its influence to prod North Korea to act more civilized. China is telling everyone to take a deep breath and not overreact - China thinks North Korea is a potential trading partner and ripe for economic reform. (Every day it becomes clearer how vital a role China is assuming in the world.)

The best outcome the Bush administration can hope for is that countries such as China and South Korea will persuade North Korea to go back to the negotiating table in the stalled six-party talks to try to work out an agreement on economic assistance, the return of frozen North Korean bank deposits and the enhanced international stature Kim Jong Il would get in return for giving up nuclear weapons. But Bush may have to reverse his adamant stand that the United States will not negotiate one-on-one with North Korea, as, after all, he did with Iran. That would not necessarily be a bad thing.

It is frustrating, however, that while old U.S. enemies such as Japan, Germany, Vietnam and Russia are now allies, the holdout is North Korea, whose people are in desperate need of help, living in a no man's land that progress, except for the ever-popular nuclear weapon, has forgotten.


Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.
E-mail amcfeatters(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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