North Korean leaders are calling U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union speech evidence of his administration's "moral leprosy."
Officials in Pyongyang are bristling over Bush's labeling of North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an "axis of evil." They are certainly not alone, but they are perhaps the most outspoken. The phrase has drawn rebuke from China, concern from South Korea and silence from Japan — reactions that will affect the tenor of Bush's Feb. 17-22 visit to Northeast Asia.
The trip will be an opportunity to measure and adjust Washington's relations with Japan, South Korea and China. Japan wants to ensure U.S. support for its economic policies and continue revising its defense policies. China will use the visit to reassert its international relevance and influence. South Korea will try to gain Bush's support for its North Korea policy and urge the president to tone down his rhetoric against Pyongyang. And North Korea wants to retake the initiative in inter-Korean dialogue — and thus in its relationship with the United States.
North Korea's reaction to the Jan. 29 State of the Union speech was perhaps the strongest among Northeast Asian nations. This is hardly surprising given that Bush accused the country of building weapons of mass destruction while allowing citizens to starve.
Bush has taken a notably more hard-line stance against North Korea than did former President Bill Clinton. Pyongyang initially responded to that stance by breaking off most inter-Korean contact, and it continues to sharpen its anti-American rhetoric. Following the State of the Union speech, the official Korean Central News Agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman Feb. 1 as saying that terrorism attacks and other problems for the U.S. government are "entirely attributable to the unilateral and self-opinionated foreign policy, political immaturity and moral leprosy of the Bush administration."
The Foreign Ministry statement went on to say that "there has been no precedent in the modern history of DPRK-U.S. relations that in his policy speech the U.S. president made undisguised threatening remarks on aggression and threat against the DRPK, an independent and sovereign state." The statement concluded with a warning that "the option to 'strike' impudently advocated by the [United States] is not its monopoly."
Seoul was less directly critical of Bush's remark but still quite concerned. The New York Times cited new Unification Minister Jeong Se Hyun as cautioning that "the United States cannot deal with North Korea in the same way it treats Iran or Iraq, because North Korea shares a border with South Korea and is supported by China." South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung Soo met with U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who assured him that U.S. policy toward North Korea "remains unchanged," according to the Joong Ang Ilbo.
Yet Seoul remains upset by Bush's comment. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, whose term expires in a year, has seen his "sunshine policy" of strategic engagement toward North Korea fall into disrepair since Bush's election. During the past year, the U.S. administration's notably harder comments have given ammunition to Kim's domestic opposition, which shares Washington's views toward Pyongyang.
For Seoul, then, Bush's visit will be a time to demand clarification of Washington's stance and beg for a signal from the United States that it is amenable to a more conciliatory policy toward the North. Although some in Washington are toning down Bush's remarks, the current administration, which has already opened dialogue with the leading opposition figure in South Korea, is highly unlikely to alter its policy toward the North any time soon.
Like Pyongyang, Beijing also criticized Bush's "axis of evil" remark. "The Chinese side is not in favor of using such terms in international relations," the official People's Daily quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan as saying Jan. 31. Kong emphasized Beijing's longstanding position that state-to-state relations should be based on "the principle of equality of all countries," adding that any other relationship only undermines the resolution of problems and harms global stability.
For Beijing, Bush's comments do much more than threaten to upset inter-Korean relations or stir up trouble in North Korea. Instead, Chinese officials see his words as an illustration of Washington's lack of concern for China's input. This is particularly the case as the speech came just days after Beijing publicly supported Iraq's territorial integrity and opposed Washington's expansion of the anti-terrorism war.
Beijing has long railed against U.S. "hegemony," and Bush's comments did little to ease its concerns. Since the launch of the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign, China has slipped from the international political arena while erstwhile rivals Russia and India have gained Washington's eye — and support. The Chinese government is now searching for leverage to regain influence in regional and international affairs.
Bush is scheduled to visit Beijing on Feb. 21, the 30th anniversary of former U.S. President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China. Although on the surface, he will be greeted with all the symbolism due the occasion, a sea of tensions will seethe underneath as Beijing tries to reassert its own importance to the United States and thus to the rest of the world.
Japan alone in Northeast Asia has paid little heed to Bush's comments on North Korea. This is unsurprising for several reasons. First, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi just fired his foreign minister, so all international diplomatic issues are currently mixed up in a domestic reshuffle. Second, Tokyo is in some ways pleased to hear North Korea labeled a founding member of the "axis of evil."
For Koizumi's government, the focus on North Korea's military threat once again makes Japan vital to U.S. security interests — a position not entirely guaranteed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tokyo hopes to play this card with Bush to ensure Washington relaxes its criticism of Japan's economic policies.
In addition, having "evil" North Korea aiming missiles at Japan only enhances support for Koizumi's military reform agenda. Japan reacted quickly to Washington's calls for support following the Sept. 11 attacks, and the anti-terrorism coalition effort was used to press through several changes in the role and deployment of Japan's Self Defense Forces.
Japan may be the only Northeast Asian country looking forward to Bush's visit, but the president will not likely be offended or worried by either China's quiet anger or South Korea's desperation. Washington is less preoccupied with these nations' concerns than it is with making sure they conform to the United States' own agenda.
Rodger Baker is a senior analyst for STRATFOR, the global intelligence company. Its Web site is www.stratfor.com.