[EDITORIALS]A tougher line on the North?U.S. President George W. Bush made extremely significant remarks regarding North Korea’s nuclear aspirations. He said the United States does not feel limited in its capacity to deal with other problems because of its troop level in Iraq. “We’ve got good capacity in Korea,” Mr. Bush said. Calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-il “a tyrant,” Mr. Bush launched into colorful criticism of Mr. Kim, saying, “he’s got huge concentration camps.”
Rejecting North Korea’s demand that the United States create an amicable atmosphere for it to return to the six-party talks, Mr. Bush, for the first time as U.S. president, indicated that military options can be considered, depending on the situation.
Mr. Bush, of course, said the six-nation negotiations are the best way to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. He also left room for diplomatic compromise, saying the United States would seek consensus among the four countries involved in the talks other than North Korea before referring the matter to the UN Security Council.
Mr. Bush’s remarks, however, can be interpreted as skepticism toward the six-nation talks in general. Most of all, Mr. Bush called Mr. Kim “a tyrant,” a possible declaration that the United States would no longer be pushed around by his strategies.
Taking account of the peculiar nature of the North Korean regime, Mr. Bush knows better than anyone how the North would react to his labeling. Including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s remarks about the potential for referring the matter to the UN Security Council, a series of recent developments showed that Washington’s tolerance is running out.
Mr. Bush indicated that the United States is capable of handling two wars. Experts have agreed that the United States would not be able to be involved in two wars at the same time. Mr. Bush, however, rejected such assessments, saying that the U.S. capacity on the Korean Peninsula has been increased because of advanced arms.
There are many steps to be taken before a military action is launched. South Korea and China’s opposition would be great burdens to the United States. Therefore, Mr. Bush’s remarks were more of a warning to the North to return to the six-party talks. But during the first nuclear crisis in 1994, the United States had planned a surgical strike. Taking account of the strong voices of neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, it is possible that the United States will carry out a military action to remove the nuclear threat.
The crisis now faces an important moment. We cannot rule out the worst scenario. North Korea in particular must not judge the situation lightly. If it conducts a nuclear test ― or even reprocesses spent fuel rods from its reactor ― a catastrophe is unavoidable.
North Korea must remember that the Bush administration is clearly different from the Clinton administration.
The South Korean government must no longer hold on to its ambiguous position. It should read the U.S. intention accurately. From working-level officials to the president, officials in the United States are repeatedly making stern warnings to North Korea. Seoul must assess accurately if they are a U.S. ultimatum to North Korea or efforts to pressure Pyongyang to return to the talks.
In 1994, the situation was growing serious, but Seoul was left blind until the last moment. South Korea must not repeat such a failure. The government should come up with the best possible plan, including the option of pressuring North Korea, and ask the nation’s opinion. That will allow the people to make their own assessments of the situation.
This is not the time to repeat abstract rhetoric such as “zero tolerance for a nuclear North Korea” or “South Korea’s leading role in resolving the crisis.”