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Monday, April 21, 2003


Why war in Korea is less probable now

LOS ANGELES -- Many fretful observers, on both sides of the Pacific, are convinced that U.S. military action against North Korea is inevitable. But this gloomy doomsday scenario, it seems to me, becomes increasingly improbable as time goes on.

The gloom originates on the Korean Peninsula, engulfing a paranoid Pyongyang and a shaken Seoul. Recharged with fright in Beijing and Tokyo, it spreads eastward and wafts ominously over America's West Coast, otherwise a happy home to the world's largest Korean diaspora.

The fear here in America is that once Washington finishes in Iraq, it may punch Syria's lights out, wash up and catch its breath for next year's presidential election, and then hit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- which is neither a democratic republic nor of the people.

Why won't that happen? For starters, the South Koreans have to understand that while those in the Bush administration may be militarists, they are not remotely stupid. Like their intellectual godfather President Ronald Reagan, who once "bravely" ordered the U.S. military to invade Grenada, Bush's advisers are not looking for fights that might have unhappy endings.

Militarily, North Korea is no puny Iraq; what's more, contiguous South Korea is far more important to America than anything directly bordering Iraq. If they could take out the North without collaterally damaging South Korea, they would in an instant. But they cannot: A thriving democracy and economy, South Korea is an Asian jewel that won't be sacrificed on any neoconservative ideological altar.

Second, the Japanese have to understand that the triumphant elite Republican Guards -- the ones in Washington! -- came to office in 2001 hoping to improve relations with Tokyo, not destroy them. Because of their genome, they still do not trust the Chinese and are more comfortable working closely with a country America has already defeated on the battlefield.

They tend to appreciate Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who deftly pledged Japanese support for the Iraq invasion (against overwhelming domestic opinion) well before the military triumph was anything close to a fact. They know Koizumi's government is in no position to cope with either an Asian arms race or a regional military conflict.

The Americans -- as well as the Koreans -- know the region is far better off with someone reasonable like Koizumi in power than a successor like Shintaro Ishihara. Recently overwhelmingly re-elected as Tokyo's governor, the outspoken nationalist speaks of North Korea in terms of "revenge." This guy, a Japanese reincarnation of U.S. populist Ross Perot, is a joke that's not funny.

Third, the Chinese, trying to lay low for as long as the world will permit so they can reconstruct their society after much neglect, have come to understand they cannot duck the North Korean issue any longer. Having subsidized Pyongyang for a decade and more, the Chinese are as fed up as anyone with the North Koreans, especially as the comfort level between Beijing and Seoul grows daily.

In the final analysis, the new government of Chinese President Hu Jintao will not allow North Korea's psychopaths to ruin their future by igniting a second Korean war. That's why it agreed earlier this week to have Beijing not only host talks between North Korea and the United States but to participate as a fully responsible partner. The Hu government deserves credit for junking its bankrupt and misleading we-have-no-influence-over-them stance.

And all of this brings us to the North Koreans themselves. Notice how suddenly it is all action. China is pitching in; Japan issues another sincere plea for diplomacy; and even Pyongyang flutters skyward the dovish idea that it will negotiate with Washington, in any format, as long as its need for a nonaggression promise is tendered. Although that attitude could change tomorrow, resurface the week after and be withdrawn in May -- that's the crazy way it works -- ultimately, there is no way out for Pyongyang but negotiation.

Launching an attack south of the demilitarized zone against fellow Korean compatriots, capitalist though they are, makes no sense. Pyongyang will bend to the democratic winds of history as long as the current government feels it has a windshield. That's the nonaggression promise it wants from Washington.

A savvy political adviser in Pyongyang would politely suggest to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his elite Communist guard that they listen more carefully to what U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly says in Beijing than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein listened to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations. If they do, there won't be a Korean apocalypse -- precisely because all parties have come to suspect that while Washington's elite Republican Guards are prepared to go to war anywhere, anytime, they're more than eager to give peace a chance.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser. His column is distributed internationally by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.

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