Thursday, June 04, 2009

What if Kim Jong-il refused to back down

One of the first things you learn in diplomacy 101 is not to make threats you can’t back up. But that is just what US Defense Secretary Robert Gates did last week by thundering the US "would not accept," and "would not stand idly by" while North Korea continued to develop nuclear weapons. One wonders how Secretary Gates intends to prevent North Korea from having the nuclear devices it already possesses.

The North Korea, US, Japan and South Korea recriminations have become a form of ritualized kabuki theater in which snarls and grimaces replace actual violence. After much angry posturing, the US, Japan and South Korea usually pay off North Korea’s "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, to stop making trouble.

The Pentagon has run out of troops and borrowed money, and is reluctant to tangle with North Korea’s tough, 1.1-million man army. There is no way the US will fight a land war against North Korea. A US bombing and missile campaign against North Korea would be unlikely to cripple its nuclear program. But such an attack would certainly trigger a major war.

If Kim Jong-il refuses to back down, Washington will be left with the nasty choice of either taking some sort of military action that is certain to prove indecisive, or lose face with its allies and foes, and listen to Kim crow. That’s the awkward position Secretary Gates has put himself in. What happens when the Dear Leader calls his bluff?

Kim Jong-il is happy to play chicken with Washington because this dangerous game boosts his stature at home and makes him a hero to some Koreans, both North and South, who see Kim as the authentic Korean leader for defying the mighty US and refusing to give in to its threats – a sort of Korean Saddam Hussein.

Kim Jong-il has picked his time well. Iraq is heating up again. At least fifty thousand US troops are slated to remain there at least until 2011. The war in Afghanistan and now Pakistan – or Afpak – is going very badly for the US, which is rushing more troops there.

[Excerpt of an article by Eric Margolis, veteran foreign correspondent]

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