When the US battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor in 1898, “Remember the Maine!” became a rallying cry that led to the Spanish-American war, even though it is far from clear that Spain had anything to do with the incident. Forensic evidence is much clearer in the sinking last month of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, with North Korea almost surely at fault. [Note added: I, too, jumped to conclusions too quickly. See my June 5 and June 7 and June 29 posts for details.] If South Korea or the US retaliates, the North has threatened that full scale war could result. As horrible as a second round of the Korean war would be, what choice do we have but to stand strong and hope that the North is bluffing? Plenty, it turns out.
Whenever I read accounts with clear cut good guys and bad guys, I try to delve more deeply. Sometimes confrontations are one sided, but most of the time there is another side to the story that doesn’t fit with conventional wisdom. In the sinking of the Cheonan, former CNN correspondent on North Korea, Mike Chinoy writes: “lost in the often breathless media coverage is a critical fact — the attack did not occur in a vacuum. Indeed, in crucial ways, it is the entirely predictable outcome of an abrupt shift in North-South relations — produced not by the actions of Kim Jong Il, but by the policies of President Lee Myung-bak’s administration in Seoul.”
To learn why Chinoy sees South Korea bearing at least part of the blame, read his fascinating article.
Our nation’s “Remember the Maine!” mentality would be of less concern were it not for the fact that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons that are, to a large extent, the result of similar diplomatic blunders. That perspective comes from Dr. Siegfried Hecker, a former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, now at Stanford University. He has visited North Korea six times in recent years to deal with the threat posed by its nuclear weapons program, so he brings a first-hand as well as an expert perspective.
In a recent paper, Hecker argues that back in the 1990’s, as Russia and China, the North’s two main benefactors, cozied up to the West, “Kim Il-sung made the strategic decision to engage the United States and even accept U.S. military presence in the South as a hedge against potentially hostile Chinese or Russian influence.”
This resulted in the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea shut down its plutonium production and took other steps that effectively ended its nuclear weapons program. But, Hecker continues, “the Agreed Framework was opposed immediately by many in Congress who believed that it rewarded bad behavior. Congress failed to appropriate funds for key provisions of the pact, causing the United States to fall behind in its commitments almost from the beginning.”
In 2002, President Bush included North Korea in his “axis of evil,” torpedoing what was left of the Agreed Framework. North Korea restarted plutonium production and four years later tested its first atomic weapon. Hecker’s paper has other eye-popping revelations and is highly recommended.
So let us “Remember the Maine!” by remembering how war fever then led to unnecessary hostilities, and by not repeating that mistake with a nuclear-armed North Korea.