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War Tensions Mount in the Koreas

Some see Bush's campaign against Iraq as a precursor to 'regime change' in North Korea.

March 23, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Koreans are watching the war taking place half a hemisphere away with an eye to what could happen next much closer to home.

On both sides of the DMZ, people believe that a rapid and relatively bloodless toppling of Saddam Hussein will embolden hard-liners in the Bush administration to go after North Korea, which has been openly flaunting its nuclear weapons program.

Maurice Strong, a United Nations envoy who visited the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, last week, told reporters Saturday in Beijing that the North Koreans are watching the war unfolding in the Middle East "very carefully and with deep concern, and questioning what this means in terms of the U.S.' ultimate intentions toward them."

For South Koreans too, the conflict in Iraq is not merely a war in a faraway place being played out on TV.

Many in Seoul believe that the war will exacerbate tensions between North Korea and the United States and ultimately tensions on the Korean peninsula. The fear is that if the U.S. is known to be considering military action against North Korea, the North Koreans might strike at the 38,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and at the South itself.

"They are fighting in Iraq now, but it clearly means that the next target is North Korea," said Yoon Jung Chun, 32, who works for an Internet shopping company in Seoul and who was participating in an antiwar demonstration Saturday in Seoul.

"The Iraqi war rings an inauspicious alarm bell for Koreans," said an editorial in the English-language Korea Herald on Friday. "The United States has been annoyingly ambiguous in its rhetoric against North Korea .... An increasing number of Koreans are concerned that [President Bush] may seek a solution on the peninsula similar to the one underway in the Gulf."

The war has already put a strain on relations between the Koreas. North Korea on Saturday canceled a series of long-scheduled bilateral meetings on economic exchanges and maritime affairs, citing a state of alert imposed last week in South Korea to guard against terrorism during the Iraq war.

"The behavior of the South Korean authorities is a rude perfidy to the dialogue partner and a reckless act of laying an artificial obstacle in the way of contacts and dialogue between both sides," North Korea said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

The North Koreans have strongly condemned the war in Iraq as a "grave encroachment on sovereignty." On the other hand, South Korea's new president, Roh Moo Hyun, surprised many at home and elsewhere by coming out cautiously in favor of the United States in the war. Roh openly criticized Bush's stance toward Iraq and North Korea during the South Korean presidential election campaign last year, but he now appears determined to mend fences. South Korea is planning to send about 700 noncombat personnel, engineers and medics to assist in Iraq.

North Korea's behavior during the early days of the war also is being keenly watched to see if the regime appears chastened by the Iraq campaign or if it will exploit the distraction to its own advantage and speed its development of nuclear weapons.

Some observers fear that the North might start up a plant that produces weapons-grade plutonium during the war, figuring that it needs to develop nuclear weapons as quickly as possible in case it is indeed the next U.S. target. Another possibility is that North Korea could test-fire a ballistic missile, a move that has been predicted by Japanese intelligence.

"The next two to three weeks are critical when it comes to North Korea. Will they step back or will they provoke? What they do will say volumes," said Derek J. Mitchell, a Korea expert and former Pentagon official, during remarks Friday at a conference in Seoul.

North Korea presents the Bush administration with a dilemma that is uncannily similar to the one presented by Iraq. Much like Saddam Hussein, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il presides over a totalitarian regime that is built on a cult of personality. Bush has openly expressed a personal loathing of Kim, much as he has of Hussein.

And like Iraq, North Korea has over the years frustrated diplomatic efforts to divest it of a terrifying arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

Up to a few weeks ago, the conventional wisdom was that the North Koreans were trying to provoke the United States into negotiations with the idea that they would have a stronger hand before a war with Iraq. Now that the Iraqi campaign has begun, some analysts believe the North Koreans are in a quandary about what to do.

"I don't think North Korea will be too adventuristic .... Despite brave talk, North Korea turns out to be a rather pragmatic actor. North Korea is not necessarily wise or prudent, but it is not self-destructive," said Han Sung Joo, a former South Korean foreign minister. "But I think North Korea could be opportunistic, taking advantage of the situation with caution."

Han added that North Korea was most likely surprised by the Bush administration's willingness to forge ahead in Iraq without U.N. backing, as well as by the South Korean president's support of the war.

"If there was any doubt about the U.S. capability or propensity to use force in the face of tremendous opposition at home and abroad, this should settle it .... And when the chips are down, the South Koreans -- even a very progressive government -- will side with the United States," Han said. "I'm sure the North Koreans are mulling over these lessons."

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