The Koreas

Fighting Words

Bush Korea
Bush on his way to tour the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, Feb. 20, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Anti-American protests over President George W. Bush’s branding North Korea a part of an “axis of evil” marked the run-up to Bush’s first visit to Seoul in February. But, thanks to battalions of Korean police in riot gear, when Bush arrived on Feb. 19 he saw no such displays of hostility.

Since embarking on his tour of Asia, which includes stopovers in Japan, South Korea, and China, Bush has softened the hard-line tack toward North Korea that he took in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 29. He has toned down the saber-rattling war rhetoric and, while in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, even assured the Diet that he seeks an Asia “where military force is not used to resolve political disputes.” But Bush defends the reasoning behind his original remarks, saying that he is still deeply concerned about a “closed and not transparent” regime that starves its people.

Qualifying the tough talk is designed to assuage anxieties and anger, especially in South Korea. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has staked his legacy on his “sunshine policy” of engaging the North, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. But since his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in June 2000, inter-Korean progress has come to a standstill.

The majority of South Koreans would be pleased to see Bush back away from his inflammatory labeling of their northern neighbor. According to a recent opinion poll conducted by The Korea Times, more than half of those surveyed (56.4 percent) said that Bush’s remarks about North Korea were “inappropriate.” When asked who is responsible for escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula, 37.8 percent placed the blame on the Bush administration; 30.8 percent said the onus was on Kim Jong Il.

Hankyoreh Shinmun criticized Bush (Feb. 4) for what it saw as careless and dangerous statements: “[E]nsuring peace on the peninsula may be an unimportant issue to him, but it is a matter of life and death to us. The United States should halt its unilateral and militaristic moves undermining efforts for peace by North and South Korea.” Whatever Bush’s initial fears about North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction,” The Korea Herald assured (Feb. 19), “North Korea neither would nor could threaten the United States....Its continually shrinking economy makes its seemingly awesome conventional forces useless.”
For its part, North Korea is still bristling from Bush’s harsh remarks. Various reports issuing from the Pyongyang Broadcasting Station called Bush an “imperialist war maniac” and a “warmonger,” and his visit to Seoul “a junket of war and anti-reunification.”

Not one to be left out of a game of provocation and name-calling, the Korean Central Television Station in Pyongyang issued its own warning in response to being branded “evil.” “We have already expressed our position many times,” a Feb. 14 report said. “The world cannot exist without [North Korea]. This is indeed our army and people’s ironclad will and faith and our warning to the United States.”