The twin ‘Axis of Evil’

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The twin ‘Axis of Evil’

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In his February 2002 State of the Union address President George W. Bush famously charged that there was an “axis of evil” centered on Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The idea of such an axis was quickly criticized by pundits, who argued that Iran and Iraq were historic enemies rather than allies. Many critics also asserted that using pejorative words such as “evil” would make diplomatic negotiations with these countries more difficult.

Indeed, I remember meeting with the North Korean delegation to the United Nations shortly after the speech where they complained that Bush’s words had “hurt the feelings of the supreme command” in Pyongyang. When I explained that the president meant what he said, including his offer to hold comprehensive negotiations with the North, the North Korean delegation dropped their criticism and agreed a week later to accept talks with the United States (the talks were then delayed until October of 2002 because of incidents in the West Sea and subsequent revelations about the North’s HEU program).

So at the end of the day, the “evil” rhetoric, if overheated, did not really obstruct negotiations. And what about the “axis” part of the Bush State of the Union? It is true that Iraq and Iran were historic enemies, and one ironic and unintended consequence of the Iraq War has been that the Shiite majority in Baghdad is now much more closely aligned with the regime in Tehran than ever before - often to the frustration of U.S. officials. But if the Iran-Iraq axis was not true in 2002, there is now increasing evidence that North Korea does maintain dangerous ties to Iran and Syria. Whether we call it “evil” or not may be a value judgment, but there is no doubt any longer that there is an axis of proliferation and human rights violations among these nations that threatens the security of the international community.

U.S. and other intelligence agencies and governments have long suspected that North Korea collaborates with Iran on the development of ballistic missiles, and there are reasons to fear that Pyongyang could give a sudden boost to Iran’s uranium enrichment program. However, despite obvious design similarities between North Korean and Iranian missiles and frequent travel between the two capitals, no “smoking gun” of North Korea-Iran collaboration has yet been made public.

On the other hand, there has been a smoking gun with respect to collaboration between Iran’s proxy, Syria, and North Korea. In September 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed the partially constructed Syrian Al Kibar reactor complex, killing North Korean engineers on site. This followed the North Korean threat in 2003 to “transfer” nuclear capabilities as a deterrent against the United States. There was a motive, weapon and crime in that case.

Now, with the Assad regime in Syria desperately calling on Iran, Hezbollah and other allies to help overturn a popular insurgency, there is further evidence that North Korea is closely aligned with the most dangerous - and let’s say it - “evil” regimes in the world. Reports are coming in from Syrian opposition groups that North Korean officers are on the ground assisting Assad’s forces with logistics. There are also reasons to believe that Syria’s chemical arsenal was established in part with help from Pyongyang, which itself has the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the world.

The fact that Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people should alarm South Koreans and necessitates a strong response from the international community. Pyongyang will watch the international community’s response carefully. Anything less than decisive and punitive action against Assad’s regime will only weaken deterrence against any possible North Korea use of such weapons in the future. The Obama administration has been slow to come to this conclusion, but may be ready to begin arming the Syrian opposition because of chemical weapons use by Assad.

There is still no independent corroboration that North Koreans are on the ground supporting Assad’s forces. Nor is there detailed public evidence connecting Pyongyang to the Syrian chemical arsenal. These are the world’s most opaque regimes, after all. However, other evidence, including the Al Kibar reactor, makes these North Korea-Syria links highly likely.

For those who view North Korea through the lens of North-South relations or Northeast Asia, this should cause a broadening of analysis. Kim Il Sung himself argued that the South would be “liberated” in due course, and that one precondition would be for the imperialists (the United States) to be drawn to conflicts in the Middle East.

That was when the U.S. military had the capacity to fight two major regional contingencies simultaneously. That capacity is weaker today, so it is perfectly logical that Pyongyang would have an interest in complicating American security and upholding regimes hostile to Washington in the Middle East. One of the oldest maxims in international relations is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

* The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael J. Green
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