Remaining Just and Firm of Purpose
North American Bureau Chief
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld weeks ago announced plans to move U.S. forces back from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the precarious, heavily fortified dividing-line between South Korea and the totalitarian North, as part of a larger reorganization of the American military presence across Asia.Analysts say that any consolidation of forces along the DMZ could lead to reductions in the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in the South, but Rumsfeld was careful not to signal a faltering American commitment to South Korea. The troop movements, he stressed, will reflect America's new technologies and abilities to deter and defeat any aggressions against allies such as South Korea." In order to understand better the significance of this proposed reorganization, as well as the longstanding crisis perpetuated by North Korea's fervent desire to develop a nuclear arsenal, I spoke to retired U.S. Marine Lt. Col. James G. Zumwalt.
Nash: In your opinion, where should the U.S. draw a red-line with North Korea now that Pyongyang has admittedly begun to harvest weapons-grade plutonium and has a nuclear weapons development program?Zumwalt: There is clearly a line which, if overstepped by Pyongyang, should result in swift and decisive military action by the U.S. As far as North Korea crossing that line by engaging in a non-military action, it would include the transfer of such technology or the sale of such a weapon to any outside party. It is one thing for North Korea to argue it is developing these weapons for its own security (disregarding the fact it does so in violation of international agreements); it is quite another to transfer that technology to others. But, in my opinion, such an act would open the door for the U.S. to act unilaterally to remove a dangerous threat to the international community. I feel even Pyongyang's threat to transfer this technology starts to open that door.
Nash: Can the U.S. tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea?Zumwalt: The U.S. should not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea. North Korea had signed international agreements not to develop such weapons. We now know Pyongyang only used these agreements as a vehicle for extracting from the outside world more aid and assistance for its bankrupt economy so it could continue to develop weapons of mass destruction. Factor in that these weapons would be controlled by a leader who has demonstrated irrationality at best, and it is like giving a match to a child. There is no telling when the child may burn the house down, be it an intentional or unintentional act.
Nash: During any of your 10 visits to North Korea, did you sense that North Koreans truly want military engagement with the U.S. or South Korea?Zumwalt: I never sensed in the discussions I had with North Korean officials any desire for a military confrontation. But my meetings were with the diplomats and
Nash: What can the U.S. do to prevent an arms race in Asia if South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan feel they have to become nuclear powers to defend themselves?Zumwalt: I hate to even think about such a scenario. We would have a repeat of the arms race of the Cold War, only now with many more players involved. And, with so many players involved, there is increased risk of miscalculations being made. If these nations were to become nuclear powers, the cat is out of the bag and nothing, I fear, could be done to retrieve it. I think this is why it is imperative we do what we can now to prevent North Korea from building a nuclear arsenal so that the fear generated by its doing so does not grip other nations of the region, causing them to believe they need to build one too in order to defend themselves.
Nash: How are the upcoming presidential elections in the U.S. affecting America's approach to North Korea?Zumwalt: I don't see the upcoming presidential election as having much impact on Washington's approach to North Korea. Iraq is grabbing all the headlines among the opposition candidates. I think the reason for this is the perception among this field of candidates that there is little that can be done, that is not already being done, to get Pyongyang to abide by its international agreements. I would venture to say, if our politicians were asked to speak as they truly believed, most the presidential candidates would agree the current approach being taken by Washington is the best that can be mounted at the moment. This may change in the aftermath of the six-party talks now scheduled for December, but I would think not based on what I feel will be more of the same unwillingness that will be exhibited by Pyongyang to act responsibly.
Nash: I recently spoke to Dr. Kurt Campbell about the vulnerability of the North Korean regime, who said that the regimes
Nash: Many people feel that Beijing is at odds with Pyongyang for causing a crisis that upsets regional stability and disrupts China's booming trading relationship with the U.S. How heavily can we expect China to weigh in behind the scenes with North Korea on its nuclear ambitions? Will it be a meaningful effort to find a permanent solution, or will the effort simply lead the crisis to simmer for another 10 years, while Pyongyang continues to strengthen its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program or possibly export WMD to others who will have no compunction about using them against the U.S., its friends or American interests abroad?Zumwalt: I believe Beijing worries about North Korea and China's inability to influence Pyongyang as much as it once did. I believe the last thing Beijing wants is to see things get
Nash: I sense that senior Chinese military officials are growing increasingly concerned over the question of China's strategic regional security, both in connection to North Korea and also Taiwan. You have said that if the U.S. came to war with North Korea, North Korea could be soundly defeated in 30-60 days. (Hyperlink to Why Kim Jong Il Must Go ) How would China's involvement alter that assessment?
Zumwalt: The involvement, even the mere threat of involvement, by China if the U.S. took military action against Pyongyang would increase the issue on the Korean Peninsula to a higher, and very dangerous, level. Despite China's intervention in the Korean war and despite our fears it was going to intervene during the Vietnam war, frankly, I just do not see China drawing a line in the sand with U.S. over North Korea. A nation chooses whether or not to fight a war based on its own self-interests. I think Beijing recognizes they would have everything to lose and not much to gain by intervening on behalf of Pyongyang in taking such action. Frankly, I see a higher probability of war with China over Taiwan, if the latter continues its pursuit of a mandate from its people declaring its independence from the mainland and the former makes good on its threat to take military action; but I cannot envision armed conflict with China occurring over North Korea.
Nash: If North Korea agrees to abandon its WMD program, is it realistic to think that the U.S. can verify and monitor compliance with any agreement it reaches with Kim Jong Il?Zumwalt: In a recent visit to the U.S., the highest ranking defector from North Korea—Hwang Jang Yop—emphasized repeatedly that Kim Jong Il cannot be trusted. Therefore, we
Nash: Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said repeatedly that Japan has little choice but to try to negotiate with Kim Jong Il. What are your comments on this position?Zumwalt: Because of the current constitutional restrictions on Japan's military to have little more than a self-defense capability, Tokyo is unable to speak to Pyongyang with as loud a voice as other countries in the region can. This is why Tokyo could really do nothing about Pyongyang's recent admission it had kidnapped several Japanese citizens over the years and its further refusal to provide the Japanese with a full accounting of them or to allow those still alive to relocate to Japan with their Korean families. Accordingly, as a defanged tiger, Tokyo can do little more than try to negotiate with a nuclear-fanged North Korea. Tokyo realizes it will have to allow Washington to do much of the bidding on its behalf with North Korea in this regard.
Nash: Those who have met personally with Kim Jong Il, such as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, during the Clinton administration, and Kim Dae-jung, the former president of South Korea, consider him an intelligent, well-informed man. Why are there such contradictory reports between the appearances and actions of this man?Zumwalt: There is always an element of fear about the unknown, and so much remains unknown about Kim Jong Il. Being
Nash: If you were standing in the North Korean presidential palace today, what would you say directly to Mr. Kim Jong Il?Zumwalt: My message to him would be short, simple and, undoubtedly, would fall on deaf ears: "Let your people go!"
Other Articles by Paul Nash
"Road to Hell Paved with Good Intentions"
Why Kim Jong-Il Must Go
Pyongyang Sustains the Unsustainable
Mr. Paul Nash, who now serves as North American Bureau Chief for The Seoul Times, worked as financial correspondent for China Daily and China Business Weekly. He also wrote for Asia Times and the Washington Post. Already the holder of master's degree in English, Mr. Nash will be commencing a Ph.D. program in linguistics and East Asian Studies.
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