Pyongyang Bluff Poker

NEW YORK – This column has warned since 1993 of the danger posed by North Korea’s odious Stalinist regime and its nuclear weapons. But lately, we confess a measure of amusement, even sneaking professional admiration, for North Korea’s `Dear Leader,’ Kim Jong-il, for playing a really sharp game of Pyongyang Bluff Poker.

Though he resembles a hostile alien in a Japanese science fiction film, and rules over a bankrupt nation suffering mass starvation, Kim has thrown the mighty United States on the defensive, terrified his neighbours, churned up anti-American sentiment in South Korea, and exposed the illogic, hypocrisy and contradictions of President Bush’s rational for war against Iraq.

By revealing his nuclear arsenal and kicking out UN inspectors, Kim Jong-il was in effect telling Bush, `you want a war? Try one against a real opponent, not almost defenseless Iraq. We’ve got nukes, germs, poison gas, missiles galore and a million tough troops. Remember your `Axis of Evil’ tirade? Here we are, the Asian Axis. Come and get us.’

Clearly flustered, President Bush responded to Kim’s dare by first hinting at war, then backing down and calling for negotiations. The same president who categorically refuses to negotiate anything with Iraq. Bush’s embarrassing double standard over Iraq and Korea has provoked derision around the world.

Kim’s defiance has two objectives. First, capitalize on rising anti-American sentiment among young South Koreans, who do not remember how the United States saved their nation from the murderous ferocity of the North Korean communists in 1950 Korean War. South Koreans have long resented extra-territorial rights enjoyed by the 37,000 US troops permanently based in their nation. The recent acquittal of American soldiers who accidentally killed two Korean schoolgirls triggered large anti-US riots in Seoul and aided election of new president, Roh Moo-hyuan, who broke a long held taboo by daring to question the continued presence in Korea of American forces.

Koreans are extremely patriotic, prickly people. Their long political and cultural humiliation by Japan has produced a national thirst for international status and esteem. Many young Koreans see their governments, past and present, as too accommodating to US interests. By contrast, they regard the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang as the standard-bearer of Korean nationalism, and the force that will unify divided Korea and `liberate’ it from American and Japanese influence. Koreans are delighted when they watch the hated Japanese quail in fear before the threat of Kim’s missiles, about 200 of which are targeted on Japan and US bases there.

Kim’s second objective is to extort money from the US, South Korea, and Japan by using his nuclear weapons as bargaining chips. According to Pentagon estimates, a war against North Korea will require 650,000 US troops and could cost 250,000 American casualties.

Kim knows the Americans would rather pay than fight. Since the Vietnam debacle, the US has warred only against small nations with little or no ability to defend themselves: Grenada, Panama, Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan. `Dear Leader’ Kim chose his time well, knowing that US claims it can fight both Iraq and North Korea at the same time are exaggerated. If Bush persists in his obsession to invade Iraq, he will likely have to secretly buy off dangerous North Korea.

As for nervous South Koreans, they fear the Bush Administration’s so far inept, confused handling of the current crisis might spark a war in which South Korea would suffer enormously. US threats to attack North Korea’s nuclear installations, Pyongyang has made clear, will result in a massive conventional, chemical and even nuclear bombardment of the South Korean capital, Seoul, home of 10.3 million people. Unsurprisingly, South Korea urges patient negotiations and caution.

Japan is watching with dismay and trepidation, furious at North Korea for past kidnappings of Japanese students, but fearful of provoking North Korea. Tokyo is quite happy with the status quo of a divided Korea. A united Korea would challenge Japan for primacy in North Asia and present a major military and industrial threat. Behind closed doors, Japanese defense officials are urging the crash construction of an anti-missile system; some also call for production of nuclear weapons. Japan could fabricate about a dozen nuclear weapons in less than three months.

China just denounced Bush’s menaces against North Korea as `hawkish and dangerous.’ Historically, China is big brother to little brother Korea, and has always respected Korean independence. When the great Japanese warlord Hideyoshi ordered his samurai armies to invade Korea in 1592, China sent armies across the Yalu River that helped drive the Japanese from the peninsula. In a remarkably similar campaign, Chinese armies again went into Korea in late 1950, this time to fight the Americans.

Beijing views North Korea as an ally and buffer against Japan and the US. China has made clear it will support Kim Jong-il, though urging him to restrain his nuclear saber rattling. Any major US attack on North Korea could mean war with China. Russia also supports North Korea.

The Bush Administration, suddenly faced by a real and dangerous opponent in North Korea, clearly does not know what to do – except bomb Iraq.

Courtesy Raja Mattar, togethernet