Korea: Soon Nuclear-Free?


President Bush's quick stop in Korea was adroitly orchestrated to promote a much-needed reconciliation between the prospering South, still defended by U.S. forces, and the economically backward Communist North, a pariah regime dangerously close to building its own nuclear weapons.

First, he agreed to cancel "Team Spirit" joint exercises between U.S. and South Korean troops, thus responding to one of Pyongyang's preconditions for its expected agreement later this week to international inspection of its nuclear facilities. Then, in a rousing talk to American troops, the president said if anyone doubts the U.S. commitment to South Korea's security, they should remember two words: "Saddam Hussein."

Mr. Bush did not have to elaborate. Koreans on both sides knew he was referring to U.S. air attacks during the gulf war on Iraq's extensive nuclear installations. Washington has let North Korea know that if it accepts reliable monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency and demonstrates compliance with its agreement to make the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons, the United States will assist its entry into the international community and arrange financial help. If it balks, the implication is that it risks an internationally sanctioned elimination of its nuclear sites by force. In other words, Saddam Hussein's fate.

Prior to the president's visit to Korea this week, U.S. reconnaissance planes had criss-crossed North Korean air space photographing its military operations. The message was an unmistakable show of power to complement the unilateral U.S. decision to withdraw all of its nuclear weapons from the divided peninsula. The U.S. gesture was intended to make North Korea's near-nuclear status a burden rather than a source of leverage.

Just how much the regime's 80-year-old absolute ruler, Kim Il-sung, is able or willing to accept the new realities of the post-Cold War era is a question that rightly inspires caution on the part of his adversaries. The aging dictator has signed a non-aggression pact with the Seoul government and has indicated a willingness to give up nuclear processing likely to yield plutonium in weapons-scale quantity and quality. But he has reneged in the past and could again. More definitive change may have to await his anticipated replacement by his son, Kim Jong-il, or the unraveling that may come afterwards.

Mr. Bush was at his best in handling the Korean issue, which he described as "the last wound of the Cold War." He kept hold of the diplomatic initiative, brought other nations to bring pressure on North Korea and even kept China from being an obstruction. (Shades of the gulf war.) If North Korea's nuclear threat really vanishes, next on the agenda should be an all-out effort to get North Korea out of the missile-peddling business. Ultimately, reunification under democratic rule is the answer.

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