Korean Peninsula: The last frontier in the Cold War

Taipei Times

The Korean Peninsula looks like being the last remnant of the battle between capitalism and communism, where the US is struggling for a feasible strategy
By Sutil Seth

Saturday, Jul 05, 2003, Page 9

Ever since the Bush administration came to power, it has very clearly and deliberately emphasized that the US would no longer be guided by the mindset of the Cold War era. Even though the US won the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was psychologically unprepared for its new status as the world's only superpower. It had no identifiable enemy to substitute for the collapsed Soviet Union.

The new era was pronounced the "end of history" by Francis Fukuyama. He wrote that liberal democracy was the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution" and the "final form of human government," thus constituting the "end of history." In other words, the US was the way of the future for mankind.

Even as Fukuyama was pronouncing the "end of history," Samuel Huntington was setting forth his doctrine of the "clash of civilizations," largely between Islam and the Christian world. In other words, the end of the Cold War was no "end of history" but the beginning of cultural wars between opposing religious ideologies. The Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists seemed to validate Huntington's thesis. His thesis is an over-simplification. But that is another story.

Basically, having floundered for more than a decade in the unfamiliar role of the world's only superpower, the US is now coming to terms with it. In the 2000 presidential election campaign, the Republicans clearly articulated that what was good for America was good for the world. In other words, it is not for the US to adjust to the world, but the other way around. And when the US withdrew or refused to sign a raft of international agreements like the Kyoto treaty, International Criminal Court and so on, its intent was clearly established.

The Sept. 11 terrorist act in New York reaffirmed the Bush administration's resolve to remake the world. There was now an identifiable threat in the new war against "evil." And President George W. Bush pronounced that those not with us in the global war against terrorism were with the terrorists.

In this war against terrorism, North Korea remained a Cold War oddity. This was resolved by clubbing it with the new "axis of evil," alongside Iraq and Iran. But its self-advertised nuclear status and the threat to use these weapons, has created serious complications. This has unnerved South Korea and, to a lesser degree, Japan. Seoul is petrified and is insisting on peaceful negotiations with Pyongyang.

Washington is peeved and it showed during President Roh Moo-hyun's recent US visit. Interviewing the visiting Roh, a panel from Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal highlighted "a tension between Korean security and that of the US." They maintained that "many Americans are afraid" that a terrorist bomb, made of North Korean plutonium, might go off in the US "before anything happens in Seoul." Roh, though, felt that Pyongyang's "belligerence" was tied up to their need for "a guarantee for their security and economic assistance." He, therefore, counselled patient diplomacy to resolve the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

The US impatience was also reflected in an article by Robyn Lim, an American professor teaching at a Japanese university. According to her, "President Roh, in his meeting with Bush on May 14, sought two commitments. The first was a promise that the US would not use force against North Korea. The second was a commitment that Bush would agree to postpone the repositioning of the Second Infantry Division [based near the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas]. He got neither."

Roh's election as president was greatly helped by his criticism of the US during the campaign. He has since sought to make amends, and is keen to maintain the status quo in regard to the presence of about 37,000 US troops in South Korea. This is particularly so in regard to the Second Infantry Division, which works as "trip-wire" for instant US military retaliation against Pyongyang, if it were to attack across the DMZ line. By seeking to reposition US troops, Washington is seeking greater flexibility and freedom in dealing with North Korea. The military option is, therefore, not foreclosed. In other words, Washington will be guided largely by its own security interests.

Pyongyang is left in no doubt that Washington will use military force, if necessary. At the same time, China is put on notice that it would need to do more to secure Pyongyang's compliance with nuclear non-proliferation, including regime change (if necessary), to avoid the risk of a military conflict close to its border.

Beijing apparently is playing a clever game to bring the entire Korean Peninsula under its political and security tutelage. Its analysts keep promoting the view that China will be able to neutralize the entire nuclear issue by extending its security cover over both North and South Korea, once Pyongyang were given necessary security guarantees by the US. In other words, by thus defusing the crisis Beijing will do everyone a favor, including the US. The trouble is that Washington is not buying China's "altruism."

The Korean Peninsula, therefore, looks like being the last flash point, and a very dangerous one, of the Cold War period.

Sutil Seth is a freelance writer based in Australia.