Hot Peppers and Nuclear Weapons Are a Dangerous Combination
by Eric Margolis: Vive
KOREA – This vast, pulsating city of ten million seems to have doubled
in size since my last visit ten years ago. In spite of its gigantic
scale and increasingly modernistic image, Seoul remains far calmer
and better ordered than most of Asia’s frenetic cities.
high-tech South Korea is flying at Mach 9: it reminds me of Japan
25 years ago. Over 85% of Koreans are online. Textbooks are becoming
ancient relics in Korean schools. The term "offline" denotes
being behind the times, even backwards.
the other 24 million Koreans in the northern part of this divided
nation are in deepening trouble. Many go hungry or subsist on the
verge of starvation, victims of the whims of their bizarre Communist
In 1950, North
Korea, backed by the Soviet Union and, later, China, invaded US-occupied
South Korea. The shameful rout of the US 8th Army in the winter
of 1950 by Chinese troops has been erased from America’s collective
memory. Without air dominance, the US and its allies would have
been run off the Korean Peninsula.
of bitter, seesaw fighting, in which over 2.5 million Korean civilians
died, resulted in a stalemate.
stopped the fighting on the 38th parallel, but the two Koreas and
Americans remain on hair trigger alert.
Zone (DMZ) bisects the peninsula: on either side, 750,000 North
Korean soldiers face 500,000 South Korean, backed by 37,000 US troops
and the 7th US Air Force, with the US Navy just over the horizon.
the DMZ is electric. North and South Korea troops glare at one another
from fortified positions and observation posts. The world’s thickest
minefields and high antitank walls extend from coast to coast. On
my last visit, I explored 2km-long tunnels under the DMZ secretly
dug by the North Koreans.
I was warned
that even pointing at the North Koreans could trigger a firefight
that might lead to full-scale war. The much more reserved Japanese
claim Koreans are overly excitable due to their high consumption
of garlic and red peppers.
Adding a new
dimension of danger, North Korea is estimated to have three plutonium
nuclear devices and is developing more bombs using enriched uranium.
It is uncertain
if North Korea has managed to miniaturize a nuclear warhead that
can be carried on a medium or short-ranged missile. US and South
Korean human intelligence about North Korea is amazingly poor. The
main source of information on North Korea seems to be diplomatic
A quarter of
all South Koreans live in Seoul. Large parts of the city north of
the Han River lie within range of North Korea’s 170mm guns and 240mm
rocket batteries dug into the DMZ’s granite hillsides, which are
honeycombed by a veritable ant’s nest of North Korean tunnels, command
posts, supply depots and gun positions.
keeps threatening to turn Seoul into "a sea of fire,"
and has hinted it might even use nuclear weapons against US bases
in Japan and Okinawa if attacked by America.
Is North Korea
really the dire threat that Washington claims it is? According to
South Korea’s right, which is dominated by militant Christian evangelicals
linked to their US co-religionists and neocons, the answer is definitely
yes. US neocons are particularly concerned that North Korea may
supply nuclear weapons, technology or missiles to Israel’s Mideast
foes – hence their bitter antagonism to North Korea and attempts
to block any peace deals between Washington and Pyongyang.
moderate Koreans take a less alarmist view of the North. They tend
to see the North rattling its cage to get food and fuel from the
US, South Korea and Japan. Extortion is North Korea’s principal
source of hard currency. Bloodcurdling threats and invective against
the US and its Asian allies is North Korea’s favorite sport.
A good example:
"death to the filthy South Korean lackey-puppet-running dogs
of the US imperialists!" Old Cold Warriors like myself tingle
when we hear such sorely-missed, florid Communist invective.
In spite of
US warnings about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, many South Korean
analysts believe these arms are entirely defensive, designed only
to deter any possible US nuclear attack. This strategy is working:
the US has refrained from military action against North Korea. The
fact that Iraq and Libya did not have nuclear weapons has not been
lost on the North Koreans.
If the North
fired any nuclear weapons at its neighbors, the waiting US Navy
and 7th Air Force would vaporize North Korea (and much of northern
South Korea as well). The North’s fun-loving leaders are not suicidal.
In fact, their imports of prime cognac, Bordeaux wines and cigars
are up a reported 24% this year – in spite of an ungentlemanly American
embargo on luxury goods for the North.
Kim dynasty just wants to be left alone.
to by now have mostly consolidate the future succession of "Dear
Leader" Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un by securing
backing from the military and Communist Party – all of whose members
enjoy the good life while the rest of North Koreans get skinnier
and actually shrink in size.
considered North Korea’s "elder brother" in the Confucian
system, is happy to keep the North as a buffer zone for its strategic
Manchurian border, and free of US bases. Japan is uneager to see
a competitive united Korea. Russia seems indifferent to affairs
in its Pacific Far East.
worry that having to feed and build a liberated North Korea will
bankrupt them. President Lee Myung-bak recently proposed a sensible
national reunification tax to begin accruing funds to rebuild the
is not necessarily inevitable. Some North Koreans might initially
prefer to retain a separate state under Communist Party and/or military
rule, minus the quirky Kims.
side in this six-decade old standoff has any interest in starting
a new war. Recent clashes between North and South have been tactical
political gestures, not a prelude to war – though such skirmishes
do risk getting out of hand.
North Korea agreed to reopen nuclear talks with the US and its neighbors.
As an old Korea-watcher, my gut tells me that North Korea is most
unlikely to ever agree to scrap its nuclear life insurance policy,
at least until the US signs a nonaggression pact with Pyongyang.
So far, Washington has refused this basic North Korean demand.
rational view. But one never really knows what the red-pepper hot
Koreans may do next.
him mail] is the author of War
at the Top of the World and the new book, American
Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the
West and the Muslim World. See his
© 2011 Eric Margolis
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