The Indian left believes that the US, as the world’s sole super power, simply bombs whom it likes when it likes. Arundhati Roy and others have come out with long lists of countries whom the US has taken military action against over the years. The Hindu right too has long worried about US hegemony. Washington’s determination to invade Iraq for unconvincing reasons has strengthened the theory that the US squashes anybody it feels like.
This theory has just been destroyed by North Korea. That country has thumbed its nose at the US with impunity. US officials trot out hilariously lame excuses for avoiding military action against that country. North Korea is regarded by President Bush as part of the axis of evil, a rogue state run by communist madmen that cannot be trusted with weapons of mass destruction. Yet, Washington has ruled out military action against North Korea. Saddam Hussein must be wondering what the Koreans have that he doesn’t.
Recently, it came to light that North Korea is building a uranium enrichment facility that could yield weapons-grade uranium. The US sought to punish it by stopping supplies of fuel oil pledged under an earlier deal signed in 1994. North Korea has hit back by expelling UN inspectors from its nuclear facilities and threatening to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and restart work on two nuclear reactors it agreed to shut down in return for fuel oil.
When President Clinton signed the agreement on fuel oil, he was accused of trying to bribe the enemy instead of standing up to it. You might think President Bush, the supposed cowboy from Texas, is different. Far from it. Bush says the Korean episode is a diplomatic showdown, not a military showdown as in Iraq. True, but only because the US wants to bomb Iraq and refuses to contemplate bombing North Korea. North Korea supplied ballistic missiles to Pakistan for its Ghauri program. In return, Pakistan is reported to have passed on technical information to North Korea for uranium enrichment and perhaps also for building a nuclear warhead. More recently, North Korea was discovered supplying Scud missiles to Yemen. As a bankrupt communist economy suffering from failed harvests, North Korea’s most competitive export appears to be ballistic missiles. If Osama bin Laden wants a few, he can surely persuade North Korea to supply them at a price.
In sum, North Korea would appear to be a major security threat to the US, certainly far more so than Iraq. Even if Saddam has no weapons of mass destruction, say US hawks, let us act before he does indeed develop such weapons. You might think the same logic should apply to North Korea. And yet warships and fighter plans keep taking off from the US to the Gulf, preparing for war with Iraq, while North Korea is bombarded with only e-mails.
When Iraq submitted its voluminous documents on its weapons and facilities, Washington quickly declared that these were incomplete and hence Baghdad was in material breach of its UN pledge. Yet, now that North Korea is tearing up the agreement it signed with President Clinton, and threatens to walk out of the NPT, Washington is simply unable to utter words like material breach. What accounts for this schizophrenia? One possibility is that the US lacks the capacity to fight two wars at the same time. However, it has long been an aim of US military policy to plan precisely for such a contingency. Defence Secretary Rumsfeld claims the US does indeed have the capacity to fight two wars simultaneously.
Can it be that North Korea is militarily too strong? It has a huge army of 1.2 million, and no more than 37,000 US troops defend its border with South Korea. Seoul, capital of South Korea, is just 35 miles from the border, and could easily be overrun. Yet, surely Saddam Hussein in 1991 had much greater military strength than North Korea has today, and that did not deter the US, or prevent a quick US victory. Some major South Korean leaders believe in detente with North Korea rather than war. But the US has never worried too much about the reservations of allies, and is willing to drag them, however reluctantly, into war as it did in 1991.
No, none of these is a good explanation for US schizophrenia. I can think of two other possibilities. One is that the US wants, as a matter of abundant caution, to fight one war at a time. According to this theory, the US will take on Iraq in 2003, and then prepare unhurriedly for the next war with North Korea in early 2004. This will be exquisitely timed to help President Bush win the next election in November 2004. The second possibility is that the US has secret information that North Korea already possesses nuclear capability, and this capability will be unleashed in the event of war. If so, the US is giving North Korea the respect that goes with nuclear power, and plans to deal with it through deterrence rather than military action.
Only time will tell if this is indeed the case. But if so, it sends out a message loud and clear to the whole world. Go get a nuclear bomb as quickly as you can. Non-proliferation is for wimps.