KIM JONG IL, the North Korean dictator, may comfort himself that President Bush is too busy worrying about terrorist hotspots around the world to target his pariah state. But he would be mistaken.
True, Washington’s softly-softly diplomacy with Pyongyang is markedly different from its aggressive military confrontation with Baghdad, a strategy that has raised awkward questions for Mr. Bush. If North Korea is proudly going nuclear and exporting Scud missiles around the world, is the threat from Iraq as pre-eminent and urgent as he insists? The official White House answer is that President Saddam Hussein’s predatory and destructive record places him at the head of Mr. Bush’s “axis of evil”. The unofficial answer is that, despite the great risks involved in trying to get rid of Saddam, he is an easier target.
The hundreds of North Korean missiles pointed at South Korea, together with the world’s fourth-largest standing army of about one million across the border, are a powerful deterrent, but military power may not protect Mr. Kim for ever.
President Bush is an instinctive and often emotional performer. Explaining Saddam’s evil, he reminded an audience this year that “this is the guy that tried to kill my Dad”.
The President has developed a similar grudge against the North Korean leader. “I loathe Kim Jong Il,” he told the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in a recent interview. “I’ve got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people. And I have seen intelligence of these prison camps — they’re huge — that he uses to break up families and to torture people. It appalls me.”
Mr. Woodward spoke to Mr. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and included the interview in the epilogue of his instant bestseller about the White House after the September 11 attacks. When the subject of North Korea came up, Mr. Bush became so emotional that Mr. Woodward thought that he was about to leap to his feet.
Mr. Bush said that he was “not foolish” and that he understood the threat posed by the North Korean military. He also said that he was under pressure to go slow, because the plight of the North Korean people would worsen once the United States began tightening the screws. But he added: “I just don’t buy that. Either you believe in freedom, and worry about the human condition, or you don’t.”
The most overlooked part of the Woodward book is what it reveals about the changes in Mr. Bush over the past 16 months. His pre-election call for American humility in its foreign policy and retrenchment in its deployment of troops has been overtaken by events and is long forgotten.
What has not been clear, until now, is what is driving the change.
President Bush, like his father, used to be dismissive of grandiloquent foreign policy pronouncements. But he told Mr. Woodward: “The vision thing matters. That’s another lesson I learnt.”
The Bush vision, it seems, is not merely reactive, and not just about snuffing out terrorism. “There is nothing bigger than to achieve world peace,” he said. What he means is that he is prepared to fight wars if the goal is to liberate the oppressed and usher in stability. And Mr. Bush, a born-again Christian, is bringing to the task the zeal of the converted.
Precisely what that means for Kim Jong Il is unclear, apart from demonstrating that the ruthlessly determined President is on to him.
Mr. Bush could adopt several courses of action. He could make Chinese pressure on North Korea the sole benchmark of the improved Sino-American relations that Beijing seeks.
He could demand that China open its borders to North Korean refugees in the hope that an exodus would collapse the regime. He could use the arrival of a new South Korean President this month to build a harder diplomatic edge against the North. He could plan for pre-emptive military strikes against North Korea’s missile sites, as President Clinton did before abandoning the idea. He may do all of that and more.
But one thing is clear: Mr. Bush will not rest on any laurels he may collect in Baghdad. Pyongyang is his next target.