U.S. hopes for quiet Korea until getting rid of Hussein

Critics see inconsistency

Far Eastern threat feared

January 19, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - At one time or other, senior Bush administration officials have described Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il in the same terms: as brutal dictators indifferent to the suffering of their people, as sponsors of terror and as cheaters and potential proliferaters of "weapons of mass destruction."

Yet toward Iraqi leader Hussein the United States is mobilizing for a war to destroy his regime and free his people, while toward North Korea's Kim it is all but ruling out military force while offering a tempting bargain of aid, trade and peace that could prolong the life of his throwback Stalinist rule.

This disparity has sown confusion at home and abroad, exposed the administration to charges of a double standard and even recklessness, and undercut President Bush's "pre-emption" doctrine, which calls for decisive action to prevent gathering dangers from becoming direct threats.

To be sure, Bush says he wants the same peaceful outcome to both crises, hoping that the threat of force against Iraq will make Hussein disarm without war and that diplomacy and the prospect of economic and diplomatic incentives will do the same for North Korea.

U.S. officials argue that of the two, Iraq poses the more immediate threat, having invaded neighboring states twice in the past two decades and used chemical weapons while holding vast oil reserves that, combined with nuclear arms, could in time make catastrophic aggression irresistible.

In avoiding any talk of war against North Korea, the administration is mindful of acute anxieties in South Korea and Japan about a conflict on the peninsula as well as the devastation one could cause.

Military analysts say even a pinpoint strike against North Korea's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon might trigger a major counterattack by North Korean artillery against South Korea's densely populated capital of Seoul as well as against the 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed as a tripwire close to the border.

Inconsistencies

In contrast to his seemingly uneven policy toward North Korea, Bush's determined focus on Iraq fits the administration's refusal to be distracted from a central purpose.

"Their critique of [former President Bill] Clinton was that he was always chasing headlines, reacting to the crisis of the moment, and did not set clear priorities. They [Bush administration members] pride themselves on being able to do that," said Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Clinton White House.

But the administration's insistence that it should not have a "one size fits all" foreign policy glosses over a series of flip-flops, policy shifts and internal splits on North Korea dating from early in the administration, leading critics to question whether a clear American strategy exists for the peninsula.

First, shortly after Bush took office, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the new administration would stay on the path of negotiation and incentives followed by Clinton and backed by South Korea, only to be quickly forced to reverse himself by the White House.

Several months later, Bush renewed an offer of talks, but insisted the agenda be expanded beyond nuclear issues to include a pullback of North Korea's conventional forces from the always-tense demilitarized zone.

Then, in mid-2002, the administration developed what it called a "bold approach," offering to transform relations through trade, diplomatic ties and a formal end to the Korean War. This was aborted after North Korea in October defiantly acknowledged a hidden program to enrich uranium.

As North Korea stepped up its provocations, including its withdrawal from the international nuclear nonproliferation treaty and expulsion of outside monitors, the administration veered from a tough line of containment - halting fuel aid and refusing to negotiate - to Bush's renewed offer of the earlier "bold approach."

In a telling episode of policy confusion, the United States, with assistance from Spain, seized - and then abruptly released - a shipment of North Korean Scud missiles to Yemen.

Focus on Hussein

On Iraq, meanwhile, Bush's expressed desire to see Hussein disarmed without war obscures the almost singular importance that Iraq has assumed in some Washington circles, leading to a palpable eagerness among many inside and outside the administration to achieve "regime change" for reasons that go well beyond stripping that nation of its deadliest weapons.

Even as U.S. forces routed al-Qaida terrorists and the Taliban from Afghanistan soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, key administration advisers sought to expand the war on terrorism to Iraq.

They see the ouster of Hussein as a precondition for a new, more-U.S.-friendly order in the Middle East, diminishing radical threats, weakening the power of oil-rich autocrats in Saudi Arabia, boosting Israel's long-term security and encouraging the spread of democracy and tolerance.

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