Don't Panic! January 08 2003

Your war questions answered

What do South Koreans think about our nuclear-themed confrontation with North Korea?

To help you understand what it's like to be South Korean these days, I need you to imagine a really bad action movie. In the climactic scene, the bad guy has a knife to the throat of his final intended victim. The hero — a rebel cop who plays by his own rules — is standing on the other side of the room with a gun in his hand. "Put down that gun or I'll cut her throat," the bad guy says, at which point the intended victim yells, "Forget about me, just kill him."

The bad guy is North Korea. The rebel cop who plays by his own rules is the United States. The victim is South Korea. Some of the movie's other characters include America's funny sidekick played by Great Britain, a doomed hooker with a heart of gold played by Australia, and the gruff police chief who keeps threatening to take the U.S. off the case, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

Actually, there's one important difference between the standard action movie scenario and our current nuclear standoff with North Korea. Instead of saying, "Forget about me, just kill him," South Korea probably would yell: "You idiot rebel cop who plays by his own rules! Your macho bullshit is gonna get us all killed." Bad dialogue? Yes, but they've got a point.

All the nuclear nuttiness actually pre-dates President Bush. The Clinton administration promised to build North Korea some power plants as long as North Korea stopped building nuclear weapons. Both sides fudged on their promises — we didn't deliver power plants, and they only downshifted their nuclear weapons program.

But Bush needlessly agitated North Korea by lumping the Communist dictatorship into his imaginary "Axis of Evil." Since Bush and Co. clearly aren't shy about rattling sabers, the North Koreans figured the only way to guarantee their safety from an American attack would be to develop a nuclear deterrent. So, a couple of weeks ago, they kicked international inspectors out and cranked their weapons program back up.

It's kind of like they're saying, "OK, Sheriff Bush. You attack us, we'll nuke South Korea" — which is home to 30,000 U.S. troops and a few South Koreans.

The rude surprise on this side of the Pacific is that the South Koreans seem more pissed at us these days than at North Korea. And it's not just the fear of getting nuked that's causing South Korea to get its fancy Asian silk panties all up in a knot.

U.S.-South Korean relations started to sour like pickled cabbage March 2001, when Bush publicly dissed his guest, South Korea President Kim Dae-jung, by poo-pooing Kim's call for more political dialogue with North Korea (South Koreans call that their "Sunshine Policy," although presumably they have a Korean word for it).

They're also livid that a military court let two American GIs off pretty easy after their tank rolled over two schoolgirls, that Bush appeared to favor the more hawkish candidate in their December presidential elections, and, I kid you not, at the depiction of South Korea as a backward ox-populated rice patty in the most recent James Bond film.

Despite North Korea's obvious unreliability (and the bad hairdo of its sex-crazed, pajama-clad dictator), South Korea's election last month of the dovish Roh Moo-hyun was a clear statement of support for a peace settlement with the North. President-elect Roh says the U.S. should follow South Korea's lead by adopting the Sunshine Policy and by negotiating a non-aggression pact with North Korea.

It's pretty obvious that North Korea doesn't really want war. Who'd want to line their measly two or three nuclear warheads up against our thousands? But their leaders are playing chicken to bring us back to the negotiating table. Though Korean-style chicken is certainly delicious, particularly when it's glazed with honey, it's a dangerous game.

And now, with their hands full of Iraq and the "war on terrorism," White House aides hardly wanted to have to deal with an international crisis involving a rogue state that actually does have nuclear weapons. Bush has to consider that sissified "engagement" stuff Clinton pursued worked better than this new game of nuclear brinkmanship. Perhaps, if South Korea presents the idea to Bush in the form of an action movie, he might understand that.


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