- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

President Bush has backed down on North Korea because the nations most directly threatened by North Korea's bellicosity South Korea and Japan insisted upon it.
After a meeting with South Korean and Japanese officials, the United States announced Jan. 7 it would accede to North Korea's demand for direct talks.
But American officials said we would not offer to North Korea any compensation for keeping pledges it made a decade ago, and subsequently broke.
This is a major diplomatic setback for South Korea. North Korean propagandists portray South Korea as an American "puppet," and have insisted upon direct negotiations with the puppeteer. We have maintained that the future of the Korean Peninsula is chiefly a matter for Koreans to decide, so South Korea should be an equal participant in any negotiations. But we cannot protect South Korea's interests if South Korea is unwilling to assert them.
The current crisis is the product of the failure of an earlier attempt to appease North Korea. In 1994, President Clinton, Japan and South Korea promised to supply North Korea with food and fuel oil, and to build for the North Koreans two nuclear power plants if the North Koreans would abandon their nuclear weapons program. President Bush suspended gifts of fuel oil (but not of food) after North Korea defiantly acknowledged it had violated the 1994 accord.
Mr. Bush wished to respond by imposing economic sanctions. But South Korea, Japan and China were unwilling to go along. North Korea threatened war if sanctions were imposed.
North Korea requires massive international assistance to survive. More than 2 million people have starved to death. Factories are working at 30 percent capacity. Electric power is on for only a couple of hours each day.
North Korea is poor in large part because dictator Kim Jong-il lavishes most of his nation's sparse resources on the military, the fifth-largest in the world. If there were another Korean war, North Korea would lose it swiftly, but not before inflicting massive damage on South Korea.
South Korea has more than twice North Korea's population, and nearly 40 times its national wealth. It is more than capable of defending itself, if it has the will to do so. But South Korea has two profound vulnerabilities:
One is geographic. Seoul, which is to South Korea what New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. combined are to us, is within artillery range of the Demilitarized Zone. There is little likelihood a North Korean invasion could capture Seoul, but little doubt that North Korea could devastate the city.
The other is that North Korea has weapons of mass destruction, and South Korea at our insistence does not.
The geopolitical situation is complicated by the presence in Korea of 37,000 U.S. troops, roughly evenly divided between the Army and the Air Force. The airmen contribute significantly to South Korea's defense. The soldiers do not.
South Koreans understandably wish to avoid both war with North Korea, and a collapse of North Korea that would flood them with impoverished refugees.
Our primary interest is to prevent North Korea from selling weapons to other rogue nations, which we cannot do without international cooperation. The South Korean interest is considerably greater. We cannot pursue policies that put South Korea at risk without the active consent of the South Koreans.
The presence of U.S. forces in South Korea has become counterproductive.
Removing them would eliminate both a propaganda and a military target for North Korea, and the focal point for anti-American demonstrations in South Korea.
We can continue to shelter South Korea under our nuclear umbrella without having a single soldier on the Korean Peninsula. Or we could help South Korea acquire nukes of its own. If the rest of the world will not join us in fighting nuclear proliferation, counterproliferation may be the best response. If faced with the prospect of a nuclear armed South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, China may conclude that North Korea is as big a problem for them as it is for us.

Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration and is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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