From Axis of Evil to Twin Dominoes
Author Tom Plate

From Axis of Evil to Twin Dominoes

Watch Out for the Falling Tower of Pyongyang

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

This article originally appeared in
AsiaMedia.

LOS ANGELES -- Baghdad and Pyongyang offer a new domino theory for world politics. Their connectedness affects the fate of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, the future of the Koreas and overall stability in East Asia.

The premise here is that the Bush administration will require high levels of multinational help to ride out the rocky Iraq imbroglio. The cost in U.S. treasure -- not to mention the impact on next year’s U.S. presidential election -- will be enormous if Iraqi stability is to be strictly made-in-the-U.S.A.

On this assumption, the Bush administration must do everything possible to enlist its two great Asian allies in the effort: Japan, which President George W. Bush may visit soon, and South Korea, where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld checked in this past weekend. Initially, both Tokyo and Seoul supported the U.S. decision to strike at Saddam Hussein, despite the absence of incontrovertibly explicit U.N. authorization. Neither decision was popular at home, to understate the matter.

The public-opinion problem has gotten worse for the governments of Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi and South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun. The cranky Stalinist regime now threatens to nuclearize not just the Korean peninsula but potentially the whole region. It has reverted to its Cro-Magnon rhetoric, calling one top U.S. State Department official ‘‘human scum’’ and Rumsfeld a ‘‘psychopath.’’ (Not everyone in South Korea entirely disagrees with the latter epithet, as evidenced by the anti-Bush street demonstration that accompanied the secretary’s recent visit to Seoul.)

Similarly, the pacifist Japanese are increasingly unnerved, and its anti-nuclear tradition could become untenable if the North Korean issue festers further. This is why Baghdad and Pyongyang are domino twins. The Japanese public will be more opposed than ever to sending troops to Iraq if North Korea is still saber-rattling. We must not forget that several years ago North Korea popped up an ‘‘experimental’’ missile in a trajectory over Japan, with which World War II scars have not healed and Pyongyang still publicly quarrels.

Reflecting the urgent need for a political settlement on the peninsula, South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Yoon Young-kwan, speaking to the U.N. General Assembly Sept. 25, warned North Korea ‘‘it simply cannot achieve economic prosperity without fully abandoning its intentions to develop nuclear weapons.’’ With helpful vision, Yoon proposed a comprehensive economic and political settlement -- a loose version of a Korean European Union. ‘‘The positive impact of such cooperation and assistance,’’ he said, ‘‘will resound not only on the peninsula but throughout the region and beyond ... (creating) an unprecedented opportunity to dramatically enhance international relations in East Asia.’’

For starters, Beijing’s six-party talks on the Korean peninsula, begun in August, must resume, despite the predictable North Korean table-thumping and name-calling. The talks, after all, are being hosted by the Chinese government of Hu Jintao. It has demonstrated a limited tolerance for Pyongyang, as it has its hands full housing, feeding and employing its own 1.3 billion people. A tsunami of North Korean refugees is the last thing on its wish list. Pointedly, in clear daylight, it recently dispatched an eye-opening contingent of some 150,000 troops to guard the North Korean border. That was some message.

The tough-minded but apparently pragmatic Hu Jintao government has an unusual opportunity to help orchestrate a comprehensive settlement. That would include verifiable Pyongyang denuclearization, together with vital economic aid from its neighbors to keep the northern country patched together pending a more permanent political peninsula arrangement. If the vexing on-site nuclear inspection issue proves the stopper, Beijing should guarantee Pyongyang’s denuclearization with its own inspection program; North Korea must accept intrusive Chinese inspections if it is not going to permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors; and Washington should accept Beijing’s assurances in the absence of any better idea -- besides peninsular war. Such a contribution by China could prove a defining moment in U.S.-Chinese relations.

The point is this: If Iraq is important to Bush -- and indeed it could well prove the administration’s Achilles’ heel -- then the administration needs to settle with the North Koreans. This may mean allowing Beijing, and to a lesser extent Tokyo, to take command. So be it. If North Korea remains a boiling pot of trouble, Japanese and Korean troops will presumably remain home for the time being. Washington must work cooperatively with Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul. This means: Let’s have less second-guessing from those nattering nabobs of neo-conservative negativism in Washington.

Baghdad and Pyongyang -- two of the three charter members of Bush’s ‘‘axis of evil’’ -- are now domino twins towering over Washington. In Bali next week [Oct. 7-8], China’s No. 2, Wen Jiabao, Koizumi and Roh will articulate an economic and trade outline for North Korea that could have the effect of keeping one of those dominoes from falling over on the second one -- and, therefore, perhaps on a third: the Bush presidency itself.

Tom Plate's bi-weekly column appears in the Honolulu Advertiser, The South China Morning Post and The Straits Times of Singapore. The author, Tom Plate, is a regular columnist at these three papers. The column also appears in other world newspapers, including The San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, The Japan Times and The Korea Times. Email him at: tplate@ucla.edu.

Tom Plate is a professor of Policy and Communication Studies at UCLA where he founded the Asia Pacific Media Network. He is a regular columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, the South China Morning Post, The Straits Times and the Honolulu Advertiser. He is a member of the World Economic Forum, the Pacific Council on International policy and the author of five books. He has worked at TIME, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Mail of London.