"The United States of America," President Bush thundered to a wildly cheering Congress, "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
The challenge Bush threw down a year ago has now been taken up. The Stalinist regime of North Korea, arguably the "world's most dangerous," has just admitted it is building the world's most destructive weapons. And Bush's response? "Let's talk."
Suddenly, all the bombast about an "axis of evil," pre-emptive strikes and "regime change" gives way to sweet reasonableness. Understandably. For a war with North Korea, with its hundreds of missiles, chemical and biological weapons, and million-man army with 11,000 artillery tubes on the DMZ, would be no "cakewalk."
So, Colin Powell has ruled out preventive war to deny Kim Jong Il the weapons he appears determined to build, and the Bush Doctrine thus becomes "inoperative" in Korea. Instead of tough talk, Bush and Powell are now casting about for diplomatic allies to isolate Pyongyang and force it to close its reactivated nuclear facilities.
Unfortunately, they are meeting with little success, and the reasons are rooted in respective national interests.
In South Korea, a generation has grown up that knows nothing of U.S. sacrifices in a Korean War that ended in 1953, but detests the U.S. troop presence. And South Korea just elected a new president committed to a "sunshine policy" of engagement with Pyongyang. Why?
Because, to Seoul, the alternatives are too horrible to contemplate. South Korea fears that a cut-off in food, fuel and aid to North Korea could starve and freeze to death millions of their kinsmen, and possibly cause a regime collapse, leaving South Korea to care for 20 million destitute and dying North Koreans. Worse, an embargo might cause Kim Jong Il to lash out in a desperate war that could turn all of Korea into a sea of fire.
Thus, South Korea has rejected both U.S. pre-emption and a U.S. policy of isolating North Korea. Japan, too, is reluctant to endorse any policy that enrages Pyongyang, for Tokyo is defenseless against Kim's missiles, which have been tested over the Japanese home islands.
Russia has no desire to see Kim Jong Il brandishing atomic weapons, but why should Russia join in isolating North Korea, and put itself in the line of fire?
Which leaves China. Beijing is the principal supplier of food and fuel to the North, but any collapse of Kim's regime could send hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into China, and could give ideas to Chinese patriots who chafe under the post-Maoist totalitarian regime. Moreover, for China to betray its ideological soulmate, Korean War ally and old friend, to join a U.S.-led embargo, could so enrage Kim Jong Il that China, too, might find itself a target of his wrath.
Thus, America is finding it difficult to line up allies to twist Kim's arm. Meanwhile, South Korea's new president has, incredibly, taken on the role of mediator between an America that has defended his nation for 50 years and a brutalitarian regime that has threatened his nation for 50 years.
Enough of this. It is time we consulted our own national interests.
Unlike 1950, when we faced a Soviet empire storming down the Korean peninsula, there is no vital U.S. interest in Korea today to justify sending another army of 350,000 men to fight a second Korean War. And as the new South Korean regime has undercut U.S. policy and is pandering to anti-Americanism, we should tell Seoul all U.S. troops will be out of Korea within two years. If Seoul wishes to play the hand with Pyongyang, let Seoul take the risks.
For if a war, conventional or even nuclear, broke out, no vital U.S. interest would be imperiled, so long as no U.S. troops are in South Korea. And no U.S. army should be sent to fight it. South Korea has 30 times the economy and twice the manpower of the North. It is past time Seoul took responsibility for her own defense.
Moreover, withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula would moot America's quarrel with the Communist North. An agonizing reappraisal of an Asian policy that dates to John Foster Dulles is overdue.
As for Beijing, the Chinese should be told that if they will not assist us in keeping Pyongyang out of the Nuclear Club, the United States will no longer seek to restrain South Korea, Japan or Taiwan from joining that club. Let us withdraw our troops from Asia and let Asia's democracies acquire the same weapons as Asia's communist dictators. Nuclear weapons have raised the price of empire too high.