January 16, 2003 | Commentary on Asia
Pointing the Finger of Blame
The ominous drumbeat coming out of North Korea's state-controlled
media is threatening, but it's nothing new. The dark mutterings
about a "Third World War" that "knows no mercy" waged against the
"U.S. warmongers" and turning Seoul into a "sea of fire" is a
familiar screed for the Pyongyang regime, which considers such
colorful saber-rattling just another way of doing business.
Unfortunately, this fact appears lost on President Bush's critics
here at home. Indeed, they're claiming not only that he has
mishandled the North Korea situation but that he caused it in the
How? By being "counterproductively confrontational," according to
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. The president's "inflammatory
language" and his "tough talk … triggered the current
crisis," adds USA Today
It started, we're told, when he named North Korea a member of the
Axis of Evil in last year's State of the Union speech and went
downhill from there. Now, we've "bullied" Pyongyang to the point
where "a difficult challenge on the Korean peninsula [has become] a
dangerous crisis," Lieberman says.
All of which might make sense if our problems with North Korea
didn't begin long before President Bush arrived in
The fact is, he had good reason to use the word "evil" to describe
one of the last of the totalitarian communist regimes. We're
talking, after all, about a government that represses and starves
its people to keep its million-man army fed and supplied. One that
has breached four international arms-control agreements and made no
secret of its desire to build itself into a nuclear power. One that
proliferates ballistic missiles to the world's most volatile
regions, such as South Asia and the Middle East. One that runs
drugs and counterfeits currency.
Did any of this begin after the president's speech? No.
OK, the critics may reply, North Korean officials aren't angels.
But what about the way President Bush has harmed relations with
South Korea, a key ally?
No one can deny that Washington and Seoul hit a temporary rough
patch in their relationship recently. But rumors of a serious rift
between Seoul and Washington are just that -- rumors. The United
States and South Korea remain in lock-step on the core issues of
ensuring peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, and their
relationship -- based on shared values of freedom, democracy and
open markets -- is rock-solid.
Contrast that with the way South Korea is treated by North Korea:
Every time Seoul urges the United States to engage in "dialogue,"
Pyongyang escalates the war rhetoric, leaving its neighbor open to
accusations of appeasement.
Then there's the charge of "inconsistency." Compare how President
Bush is treating North Korea with how he's treating Iraq, the
critics say. One gets kid gloves, the other gets the back of his
hand. What gives?
Surface similarities aside, there's no reason for President Bush's
approach to North Korea to mirror his approach to Iraq. Yes, both
are ruled by regional despots who brutalize their people as they
pursue weapons of mass destruction. But Saddam Hussein is an
expansionist megalomaniac who wants to unite the Arab peoples of
the Gulf region under his rule, and Kim Jong Il -- for all his
bluster -- seems obsessed with regime survival and garnering aid.
Saddam poses a more serious, immediate risk to the United States
and its friends and allies than Kim does, and he should be handled
We must realize that a cookie-cutter approach to foreign policy
won't work. In the Axis of Evil, one size doesn't fit all.
And why shouldn't the United States publicly demand that North
Korea honor its agreements and retrench on its nuclear program in a
verifiable manner before entering into direct negotiations? The
fact that Kim Jong Il's government is violating four weapons
treaties should make us wary of immediately jumping into another
agreement with it.
No one's saying we shouldn't allow diplomacy and international
pressure to run their courses before we consider a more muscular
policy. But we must be careful not to reward bad behavior and
encourage other rogues to use blackmail and extortion to force the
United States to negotiate on their terms. The president
understands that appeasement and weakness invite provocation.
Indeed, his decision to move forward on missile defense is a
practical element of dealing with the likes of North Korea.
In this case, what's "counterproductive" is blaming the president.
It empowers those whose most ardent wish is to divide us. Kim Jong
Il is the mid-wife of this situation, not George W. Bush.
Peter Brookes is director of the Asian Studies Center at The
Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public
policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire