[VIEWPOINT]Iraq-North Korea connectionsOnly a few years ago, not many Koreans would have associated developments in Iraq with Korea’s fate. Of course, during the Clinton years, there was talk of “rogue” or “pariah” states that included North Korea, but the term did not resonate broadly with the public. Nor did governments around the world actively initiate policy that lumped the states together in a meaningful way.
Then came President Bush’s January 2002 “axis of evil” designation. Though there were no substantial religious, economic or political linkages, Iraq and North Korea were designated together as states that were potential sponsors of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction. This identification gained widespread attention around the world even if Koreans saw no reasonable connection, particularly in a post-June 2000 summit environment.
When the U.S. invasion of Iraq started, many experts and media again drew a connection between developments in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. Many believed that Kim Jong-il would consider some major provocative action, whether a missile test, nuclear weapons test or reprocessing of nuclear fuel, once the “shock and awe” campaign commenced. The argument was that given U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. forces and attention would be stretched too thin to respond to another contingency in Korea, and that this would embolden the North to coerce the United States into providing benefits in order to placate North Korean adventurism.
Although North Korea engaged in reprocessing, it did not undertake a nuclear test or a missile shot. But developments in Iraq still had a tangible impact on policy toward North Korea. The bombing campaign in Iraq caused Kim Jong-il to disappear from public sight for over one month. From what I understand, intelligence sources located him underground near the Sino-Korean border. This then led to expert assessments inside Washington that the North Korean leader, fearful of precision bombing by the United States directed at him, was headed north and contemplating exit from the country. I believe this judgment is wrong for a variety of reasons, including the fact that any rational North Korean fearful of a U.S. decapitation strike would head north to discourage the United States from bombing near China, but this does not necessarily mean he was ready to abdicate his throne.
Nevertheless, it was a significant judgment that gave more impetus in the United States for a policy of nondialogue and pressure on the North. If one could mount enough sustained pressure, the argument went, one could eventually get Kim to pull a “Doc Duvalier” and leave without firing a shot, as was the case in Haiti.
A third connection between events in Iraq and North Korea is now developing in subtle but potentially very important ways. In the United States, the media have been fixated on the inability of U.S. occupying forces to find unconventional weapons in Iraq. Washington is similarly focused on questions regarding the administration’s claims, as made by the president in the State of the Union speech, about fissile material links between Iraq and Africa.
But what may be the really interesting story for Koreans actually is taking place in Vienna. International Atomic Energy Agency officials are saying “we told you so.” They and their United Nations Special Commission compatriots who were tasked with inspecting for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the war feel vindicated thus far in their assessments that they could not verify the existence of such weapons. The United States had cast great doubt on inspectors’ assessments, arguing that they lacked the intelligence about where Mr. Saddam was hiding such weapons, and that the Iraqi leader’s “time was up.” But now there are more doubts about U.S. intelligence assessments than there are complaints about weapons inspectors being duped.
The point of all this for Korea is clear. If no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq, then the integrity of international inspections will be preserved at least for the time being. Thus, if the six-party North Korean nuclear talks ― possibly in September ― mark the beginning of a protracted process of negotiation to disarm Pyeongyang, then the prospect of a settlement that involves international verification of North Korean disarmament would increase. Many Bush administration hawks cringe at this thought because they believe such a verification process is virtually impossible given the nature of the regime, the nature of the program and the “Swiss cheese” mountains of North Korea. They are probably right. The North Korea and Iraq cases are quite different. But the point is that there will be a strong political argument that international inspections have to be given a chance.
On the other hand, if unconventional weapons are eventually found in Iraq, the Bush administration’s lack of confidence in international weapons inspections will appear well-grounded. This will greatly undercut confidence in a negotiated solution involving North Korean disarmament verified by international inspectors.
* The writer is D.S. Song-Korea Foundation chair of government and Asian studies at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.
by Victor D. Cha