As 2002 draws to a close, the prospects for peace seem bleak in the world’s troubled Middle East region. Afghanistan remains in chaos, despite the ouster of the Taliban regime by American forces. Israel and the occupied West Bank territories suffer terrible incidents of violence almost daily, forcing the cancellation of Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. Although the administration has not yet ordered a full-scale military mobilization into Iraq, war hawks in the Pentagon and Defense department assure us that such an attack is imminent.
Yet even in the midst of this Middle East turmoil, an unsettling new threat has arisen in North Korea. The authoritarian Kim Jong-il regime recently announced that it would move forward with a nuclear weapons program, poisoning its already hostile diplomatic relationship with Washington. The Koreans allegedly opened seals on thousands of irradiated fuel rods, and removed UN monitoring cameras at a nuclear reactor that was earlier shut down by treaty. Some military observers believe the North Koreans can produce four or five nuclear weapons in the next six months.
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld quickly responded to the North Koreans by declaring that the United States can fight simultaneous wars with Iraq and North Korea if necessary. But can we be certain this is true, especially after the demoralizing reductions in our military strength during the Clinton years? Does this mean we will stretch our military forces even thinner, to fight three or five or ten conflicts, if necessary to play world policeman in the new American empire?
The seriousness of the North Korean threat is evidenced by strong reactions from France, Britain, Japan, Russia, and even China. In fact, a recent poll showed that an overwhelming number of Americans view North Korea as more of a threat than Iraq.
How tragic that after 50 years of Korean occupation by American troops, our citizens feel more threatened by that nation than ever. Thousands of Americans lost their lives in the Korean war, and thousands more have risked their lives serving in the desolate DMZ that separates North and South Korea. Yet all we can show for half a century of military and political entanglement in Korea is today’s heightened nuclear tensions. Even the South Koreans, whose very lives our soldiers protect, have grown weary of American demonization of the North, showing a desire for more openness and negotiations between the two countries. In fact, the recently elected South Korean president won votes by displaying some anti-American sentiment.
After a horrific fifteen years in Vietnam, we removed our troops completely from the region. Today, our nation enjoys friendly diplomatic and trade relations with that country, and we’ve been able to heal some of the pain experienced by both our GIs and the Vietnamese people. Somehow, we seem unable to apply the same lesson to Korea.
The good news is that public support for an invasion of Iraq has diminished, and the situation in Korea will only raise more questions about the wisdom of a second Gulf war. If the argument for invading Iraq is based on the threat it poses to American national security, a much stronger argument can be made for invading North Korea. Many Americans now believe Saddam Hussein can be neutralized without sending U.S troops into Baghdad. With tens of thousands of young American soldiers already active in Afghanistan, and hundreds of thousands ready to deploy in Iraq, the possibility of a third conflict in Korea may be too much for even the loudest pro-war voices in Washington to sell to the American public.