A different tack

Published : Jan 04, 2008 00:00 IST

Bushs letter to Kim Jong-il is seen to be a step in the direction of discarding the axis of evil theory.

in SingaporeKim Jong-il, the

THE theory of an axis of evil that United States President George W. Bush floated only a few years ago has now unravelled, thanks to his belated realisation of the wrongness of his reasoning.

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), the northern half of the divided Korean peninsula, is still on Bushs watch list, but he has now taken the extraordinary step of writing to Dear Chairman Kim Jong-il. The subject no doubt relates to the DPRKs nuclear weapons programme. However, Bush has not only recognised Kim as his sovereign equal but also made a diplomatic pitch, as opposed to a war cry, to try and secure a total denuclearisation of the DPRK.

The hand-signed letter, on White House stationery and dated December 1, acquires added importance for reasons relating to the larger collapse of the case for visualising an axis of evil in the first place. Bushs letter to Kim, Chairman of the DPRK Central Military Commission, was sent out even as Washington was agog with the updated U.S. intelligence disclosure that Iran in fact halted its nuclear arms programme in 2003.

Iran and Saddam Husseins Iraq nestled with the DPRK in Bushs geopolitical geometry of the axis of evil when he first unveiled it as an exhibit in his case for a global war on terror. And, it is common knowledge that his assiduous argument for invading Iraq in 2003, that it was to ferret out Saddam Husseins weapons of mass destruction, has been exposed as a laughable proposition.

It is against this broad background that Bushs letter to Kim is seen to be a political step in the direction of discarding the axis of evil theory. The details of this rare message have not been made public, but, as this is written, the relevant diplomatic briefings show that Bush has not sent out a directive to Kim to get rid of his small but worrisome-to-the-U.S. nuclear arsenal and programmes. Nor is the U.S. seeking this objective in the manner of a supplicant.

On balance, Bush seems to have wanted to open a channel for communication with Kim. There is, therefore, no ideological hate-line in this privileged message. This makes sense, especially when the long process of U.S. demonisation of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not paid Washington any political dividends as is evident from the latest intelligence disclosure.

Lest Kim should publicise Bushs letter as a diplomatic coup against an old enemy, U.S. officials were quick to emphasise that Bush wrote to the highest-ranking leaders of all partner-states in the six-party process. These five letters were said to vary from one another in scope only because of the differential stakes of these countries in the Korean peninsula. The six parties are the U.S., the DPRK, China as the proactive host, the Republic of Korea (South Korea, the southern part of the divided peninsula), Japan and Russia. Bushs simple aim was said to be an exercise in giving a forward push to the six-party process of denuclearising the Korean peninsula.

It is eminently arguable, though, that such an exercise lay in the proper domain of China, the permanent chair of the six-party talks, and not the U.S. So, Bushs conciliatory gesture towards Kim is a new reality on the East Asian stage. And, this reality impinges on matters beyond the nuclear arms question.

The inter-Korean summit in October, only the second such event since the end of the 1950-53 war on the peninsula, was in many ways a wake-up call for Washington. South Korea, a long-time military ally of the U.S., joined the DPRK in reaffirming their desire for reunification through the efforts of the Korean people themselves. No role for external players was envisioned in this process. It was, in a sense, a reaffirmation of the pledge first made during the 2000 inter-Korean summit. However, the renewal of this pledge indicated a new policy-related resolve on the part of both Koreas. This message has obviously hit Bush, for another important reason too.

A joint military

The two Koreas have for the first time placed on their agenda a purposeful theme of establishing a new peace regime on their shared peninsula. And it calls for no insight to recognise how important to Washington will be a potential peace regime that might replace the U.S. as the self-styled and sole stabiliser on the Korean peninsula. Successive governments in South Korea, including the present Roh Moo-hyun administration, which began as U.S.-sceptic, have generally endorsed Washingtons unchanging line about its role as a stabiliser. However, Washington is aware of the manifest lack of popular trust in the U.S. across South Korea. In this complex situation, it makes sense for the U.S. President to launch a conciliatory salvo in the direction of an increasingly South Korea-friendly DPRK.

If this should shine the spotlight on the strategic landscape that invigorated Bush to pen a letter to Kim, the nuclear arms issue itself, the stated agenda behind the message, is no less important to the U.S. With China and a newly resurgent Russia increasingly making common cause with the U.S. on issues of global nuclear non-proliferation, this letter has some political resonance across East Asia.

Officials said Bush reminded Kim of his obligation and responsibility to send in a complete and accurate declaration about the totality of the DPRKs nuclear facilities, materials and programmes. This should not exclude any of the DPRKs programmes and activities relating to its suspected recourse to the uranium enrichment route to produce nuclear weapons. Above all, Kim was called upon to address proliferation concerns because his country might be engaged in exporting its nuclear materials or even its rudimentary know-how and also its missiles or their components.

The timing of the letter is reflective of Bushs game plan of closing in on Kim when he has displayed an attitude of excellent cooperation with the other five parties in disabling his countrys plutonium-oriented facilities. It is the U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, Christopher Hill, who has praised Kim for his excellent cooperation.

The disablement, still under way at the end of the first week in December, followed a clear compliance by the DPRK in shutting down these facilities, including a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon. These activities are being monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency under the terms of a few sequential agreements reached by the six parties. For the DPRK, offers of massive doses of energy aid from the other five parties measure up as a quid pro quo.

The come-clean declaration, insisted on by Bush and the eventual dismantlement of all of the DPRKs nuclear facilities are the future steps towards its total denuclearisation. Bushs letter is designed to prevent Murphys Law from coming into play in regard to this denuclearisation, but the U.S. has yet to address Kims demand for long-term security guarantees for the DPRK. The future of the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula is linked to this puzzle.

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