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North Korea: Do Not Access All Areas

14 October 2008

North Korea: Do Not Access All Areas

By Gwynne Dyer

Korea is not a tropical country. In the autumn, the leaves turn yellow and red, and by October the process is pretty far along, especially in North Korea. Which is why there are grave doubts that Kim Jong-Il is in good health, as Pyongyang pretends, and indeed some question whether he is alive at all. And despite Monday’s agreement by Washington to take Kim’s neo-Stalinist regime off its list of terrorism sponsors, which persuaded North Korea to let international inspectors back into its Yongbyon nuclear site, we still don’t know where its nuclear weapons (if they exist) might be hidden.

Kim, the “Dear Leader” and absolute ruler of North Korea since 1994, has not been seen in public since early September, when he failed to make an appearance at a military parade marking the regime’s 60th anniversary. There was intense speculation in South Korea that the 66-year-old dictator had suffered a stroke and undergone surgery, although the source of this rumour was never clear.

The North Korean regime denied anything was wrong (as it always does), and last Saturday it finally produced some recent footage of Kim Jong-Il inspecting a women’s military unit. The only problem was that it was an outdoor location with lots of trees and bushes, and all the leaves were a lush green colour. Nowhere in Korea looks like that in mid-October; a horticultural expert at Seoul National University estimated that the event took place in July or August.

Couldn’t they at least have produced some INDOOR footage of the Dear Leader that nobody had seen before, so that the deception was not so obvious? Probably not, since this is a regime where the dictator’s activities are on the front page of the papers every day and lead the television news each evening. His every public act is documented, but the material is used immediately. They must have searched long and hard for some footage that would not already have been seen by every foreign embassy in Pyongyang. Too bad about the leaves.

This confirms that Kim Jong-Il is at least seriously ill. For all we know, he may be dead, and there may be a fierce succession struggle going on behind the scenes in Pyongyang. (The Dear Leader inherited power from his father, the “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, who founded the regime in 1948, but none of the current ruler’s children have been publicly groomed for the throne.) Whatever the state of palace politics in Pyongyang, however, the regime retains the ability to run circles around the Bush administration in diplomacy.

The most recent confrontation began last month, when North Korea announced that it intended to restart nuclear activities at Yongbyon because the US had not kept its promise to remove Pyongyang from its terrorism blacklist. That was part of the six-country deal signed last November, in which North Korea agreed to end its nuclear activities in return for badly needed aid.

As part of the deal, Washington agreed to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism — and a lot of the aid could not legally flow to Pyongyang until that was done. But the Bush administration, as so often before, overplayed a weak hand: it stalled on removing the terrorism label in the hope of forcing North Korea to allow American and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors freer access to suspected North Korean nuclear sites.

So the North Koreans simply stopped dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear site (including the plutonium reprocessing plant) and announced that they were re-activating it. It took the Bush administration, in legacy mode and desperate for at least one apparent foreign policy success, only a couple of weeks to yield to Pyongyang’s demand. Washington removed North Korea from the terrorism list on Saturday, and Pyongyang let the inspectors back in on Sunday. But they can’t go wherever they please.

As before, international inspectors only have access to “declared” North Korean nuclear sites. “Undeclared” sites — ones that Pyongyang forgot to mention — can only be inspected with the regime’s permission, on a case-by-case basis. The whole play around the terrorism designation was an attempt by Washington to force Pyongyang to allow wider access, and it has failed miserably. Game, set and match to North Korea.

The harshest critic of this outcome is none other than John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the first Bush administration. Washington’s climb-down last weekend left all the key questions unanswered, he complained: “Where are their weapons? Where is the rest of their plutonium? Where is their uranium enrichment program? What have they done in terms of outward proliferation? And we got essentially nothing new on that other than a commitment to keep negotiating.”

What’s ironic about this is that Washington’s tactics in this diplomatic fiasco are very reminiscent of the style that Bolton favoured himself when he was in office: bluster and threats, with not much ability to deliver. It didn’t work for him, either.

The rest of the world still doesn’t know whether North Korea has usable nuclear weapons (it tested one in 2006, with unimpressive results), or how many, or where they might be hidden. Whoever is in charge in Pyongyang is playing a weak hand very, very well.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“Couldn’t…leaves”; and “What’s…either”)

The New York Times vs. Reality

10 July 2007

The New York Times vs. Reality

By Gwynne Dyer

The New York Times has been wrong on Iraq for so long that it has become a tradition, and they respect tradition at the Times. Its Monday editorial calling for an immediate US withdrawal from Iraq caused a great stir in the United States: “It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit.” But an “orderly exit” is not a real option any more, and in any case that is not where the logic of American politics leads in the short run.

It would still be possible to get the 160,000 American troops out of Iraq without scenes reminiscent of the US retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea (1950), let alone the British retreat from Kabul (1842). There would be embarrassing TV clips as jubilant Iraqi mobs looted the Green Zone, but the token British force in Basra and the US troops holding the supply lines up to Baghdad can still get out southwards via Kuwait, while the bulk of the American force could withdraw north to the friendly territory of Kurdistan and evacuate by air from there.

The problem is the collaborators. Tens of thousands of people will probably be killed if they don’t leave Iraq when the Americans do, from humble drivers and translators all the way up to senior political and military figures who are too closely identified with the US occupation forces. But given the current state of American opinion about Arabs and terrorism, the United States will not welcome Iraqi refugees today in the same way that it took in Vietnamese refugees thirty years ago.

The US is already being strikingly less generous than European countries in accepting Iraqi refugees, while by far the greater part of the refugee burden falls on Jordan and Syria. But if the United States isn’t going to save the collaborators (and it isn’t, apart from a few high-profile names who know the US ambassador personally), their deaths will be the roadside counter-point to the eventual American withdrawal.

However, for all the drama in Washington as one high-profile Republican senator after another loses faith in the war, and all the theatrics in the US Congress about deadlines for “troop drawdowns,” there will be no withdrawal of American troops from Iraq this year, and almost certainly not next year either. For the New York Times did get one thing right: President Bush’s strategy now is to pass the problem (and the blame) to his successor.

“It is frighteningly clear,” wrote the Times editorialist, “that Mr. Bush’s plan is to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his successor.” What he or she did not say is that most other political forces in Washington are content to go along with that strategy, even if they must publicly insist otherwise.

All political attention in Washington is now fixed on the November, 2008 election. That is already too close for a high-speed American withdrawal from Iraq to be forgotten before the voters go to the polls, so mainstream Republican opinion will back Bush’s strategy down to 2009 even in the knowledge that it will ultimately fail. The alternative, an early withdrawal, is probably worse in terms of the election outcome in Congress. (I suspect that senior Republican strategists assume that the presidency is already lost.)

The same logic would dictate that the Democrats should push hard for an early withdrawal, in the belief that the distressing scenes that would accompany it would hurt the Republicans badly. But the Democrats lack the confidence to act on that belief. Indeed, they suspect that they will end up with a lot of the blame for the US defeat in Iraq no matter what they do.

If the Democrats forced a troop withdrawal now, the Republicans would accuse them of “stabbing America in the back.” If the pull-out comes after they win the 2008 election, then the disaster will happen on their watch, and the fickle public will already have forgotten who really caused it. So — goes the prevailing logic in the Democratic camp — let’s at least win the election before we get blamed for the mess.

If the Bush administration comes under really heavy pressure after the mid-September report to Congress by General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, it may withdraw US troops to the various “enduring bases” it has built in Iraq and leave the locals to fight it out in the streets, but that is the most that is going to happen before early 2009.

God knows whether that means more or fewer Iraqi deaths in the long run, for the fighting in Iraq will certainly not stop when the Americans leave, and it’s not clear whether the American presence is currently making the civilian death toll lower or higher. We can calculate that close to 2,000 more Americans troops will die by early 2009 in the service of these political strategies — or maybe as few as a thousand, if they are pulled back into the “enduring bases.” And then, after the US election is over, we will find out what happens to Iraq after the Americans finally leave.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 4. (“It would…there”; and”The US…withdrawal”)