Whom has North Korea provoked?

Linked with our presentation of Immanuel Wallerstein – USA.

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by Immanuel Wallerstein, on July 6, 2006 (Commentary No. 189, July 15, 2006) – North Korea launched six short-range missiles and one long-range one that failed. Around the world, thunderous critics said that this was a “provocation.” Since then, North Korea has exhibited extraordinary calm, while everyone else has engaged in hectic verbal action.

There is first of all the United States, whose reaction has been described by The New York Times as “Bush’s Shift: Being Patient With Foes.” Vice-President Cheney downplayed the North Korean threat, saying that North Korean technology was “rudimentary.” President Bush said that the U.S. was using diplomacy. “You know, the problem with diplomacy, it takes a while to get something done.”

The diplomacy has been conducted largely by Christopher Hill, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs. It has consisted of contacts with four nations in the so-called “six-party talks” – China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. Mr. Hill has been trying to get these countries to put pressure of various kinds on North Korea to cease missile tests and return to the six-party talks as well as to support a strong resolution in the U.N. Security Council, should North Korea not do so. On July 12, Mr. Hill said he was “discouraged” by the lack of response from North Korea. He did not add that he was probably also discouraged by the positions of China, South Korea, and Russia.

The only country which seemed really agitated by the North Korean missile tests was Japan. There, Shinzo Abe, who is battling within the governing party to become the next Prime Minister, and whose self-presentation is that of a tough Japanese nationalist, said Japan should consider whether a “preventive” attack on North Korea was compatible with the Japanese constitution. Japan formally asked the Security Council to impose sanctions.

Of course, North Korea denounced Abe and Japan, but not half so loudly and publicly as did the spokesman of the South Korean and Chinese governments. South Korea did urge North Korea to make “wise judgments” to avert disaster, which was rather mild language. But South Korea accused Tokyo of “arrogance and outrageous rhetoric that further intensifies the crisis on the Korean peninsula,” which was less mild. Nor were the Chinese gentler with Abe and Japan. Abe, they said, was “pouring oil on the fire.” They added: “This practice is extremely irresponsible and incomprehensible and it will only seriously disrupt international diplomatic efforts and accelerate tensions in north-east Asia.” Russia seems to share this view.

So consequence number one of the North Korean missile test was a public exacerbation of the political quarrels of both China and South Korea with Japan, quarrels that have been increasing over the past few years. For the United States, it means it has to navigate between what have been its two major allies in East Asia – Japan and South Korea. As for a U.N. resolution, it is most unlikely anything close to the Japanese version will be adopted.

On the home front, George Bush is running into trouble with his own supporters. In the latest issue of The Weekly Standard, leading journal of the neo-conservatives, editor William Kristol was scathing about Bush. He quotes Bush as telling the North Koreans they have a “choice to make” – or else. Kristol says that Kim Jong-Il has in fact already made his choice, but “what price will [he] pay?” In effect, says Kristol, none. “What was ‘unacceptable’ to President Bush a week ago (a North Korean missile launch) has been accepted.”

Kristol ends his editorial with the highest insult he has in his repertory. He calls Bush’s current foreign policy “Clintonian.” As a final flourish, Kristol says: “The real choice isn’t Kim Jong-Il’s. It’s Presidents Bush’s.” The New York Times has a different take on what Bush has been doing: “Mr. Bush is discovering the limits of his own pre-emption doctrine – and the frustrations of its alternative.”

Meanwhile, to very little public notice, India launched its own long-range missile test on July 9, only three days after the North Korean launches. For the first time, India now has a missile that can land in China. This missile test was not denounced by anyone as a provocation. Journalists have talked of it as “a strategic step to keep China in check.”

So we have a geopolitical situation in which some countries are denounced for launching missile tests and others are not (not only India of course but, for example, the United States). But those who are denounced for launching missile tests hear the denunciations as hollow, since even the United States seems hesitant to threaten war with a country that has even “rudimentary” nuclear weapons. And very quietly the Israeli government has been toning down its previous pressures on the United States to do “something” about Iran.

The realities of geopolitical limitations on military bravura are painful to learn and harder still to accept. If politics, as they say, is the art of the possible, what is possible today?

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