The Indianapolis News
January 14, 1999
Alan W. Dowd

We have lived in the so-called "post-Cold War world" for over a decade now, proudly hailing our triumph over dictatorship and division in Europe, while recklessly averting our gaze from the dangers that loom in Asia. Indeed, events on the other side of the Pacific suggest that talk of the Cold War’s end may have been premature.

Since 1989, when peace broke out in Europe, China has grown increasingly bold in its contempt toward the rest of the world. The intimidation China refined within its borders is being tested outside the People’s Republic—in Taiwan, the Philippines, and the 22 other countries with which Beijing has territorial disputes.

The main reason is oil. The Chinese are making strong claims on the Spratly Islands, which sit atop vast reserves of oil and are owned by the Philippines. China wrongfully claims 70% of the South China Sea, and has built naval and air bases in the Indian Ocean and Philippine Sea to guarantee a presence in those oil-rich waters.

But China’s outward push is triggered by more than just oil. China wants to dominate its Pacific neighbors. And if China is unchallenged in the East Pacific, it will necessarily exercise indirect control over the region’s oil and economy. However, Beijing knows it cannot forge such an empire if America continues to act as global guardian of stability—hence, China’s condemnation of US intervention in Iraq, of NATO expansion, of the ongoing alliances in Japan and Korea, and of virtually every aspect of US foreign policy.

China enters this expansionist phase with its eyes wide open. China’s leaders believe a new cold war with America is approaching, and they are gathering the military assets needed to win it. Beijing has nearly doubled military spending in the 1990s, purchasing bombers, tanks, submarines, and entire factories from Russia and other shortsighted sellers.

Any doubts about China’s willingness to brandish these weapons to prove a point were erased in 1996, when Beijing flexed its military muscle around and above Taiwan, and then ominously reminded America that, in the event of US intervention, Chinese missiles could strike Los Angeles.

China’s neighbor and protégé North Korea may soon turn this new cold war hot, as it prepares to test another medium-range missile. As they did in August, the North Koreans will likely launch the missile over Japanese airspace and deep into the Pacific Ocean. Satellites indicate that the North has already deployed the missile, which could strike Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain, and US officials believe the North may time the launch to coincide with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il’s February birthday.

Among the North’s other recent military provocations were a pair of failed espionage operations against Japan and South Korea and a series of communist submarine incursions in South Korean waters.

The US also has uncovered a secret underground weapons facility near Yongbyon, where North Korea was caught red-handed trying to mate missiles with atoms in 1993. US intelligence analysts warn that the facility could be used to conceal a reactor that produces weapons-grade nuclear material. Kim Jong-Il has vowed to bar inspectors from the massive subterranean site unless the US agrees to pay him $300 million.

We’ve been here before. In 1994, after US intelligence uncovered what was happening in Yongbyon, North Korea expelled international atomic energy inspectors and then announced its intention to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Without those inter-national safeguards, Yongbyon could produce ten nuclear warheads a year.

Armed with that intelligence, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry urged the president to gird the nation for war; the Joint Chiefs asked for an emergency deployment of men and material to South Korea and Japan. But the president instead dispatched Jimmy Carter to make a deal with the North Koreans, who ultimately agreed to halt their atomic program after the Clinton Administration promised to build a non-military nuclear reactor and send 500,000 tons of oil across the demilitarized zone.

Today, that deal is unraveling. It is now known that some of the oil was diverted to the sprawling North Korean People’s Army, and inspectors were never allowed to visit Yongbyon.

Congress has directed that before additional energy assistance can be released, the North must open its underground sites and disclose their contents. Kim Jong-Il responded with a New Year’s promise "to wipe America from the planet."

All of this occurs atop the already-dangerous powder keg that the Korean peninsula has been since 1953. The North has 8,400 artillery pieces and 2,500 rocket launchers deployed within sixty miles of its southern borders. The North Korean army, numbering over a million men, is twice the size of the American-South Korean force. A narrow swath of rocks, land mines, and razor wire separates nearly 600,000 forward-deployed communist troops from half as many South Koreans and a detachment of just 30,000 Americans.

War planners predict that casualties from a second Korean war could spiral into the hundreds of thousands. Casualty figures from the first Korean war should give us pause: 34,000 Americans, 450,000 South Koreans, and at least one million North Koreans killed during three years of conventional warfare. But Yongbyon soberly reminds us that the next Korean war may not be limited to conventional weapons.

We seem to have forgotten that while Europe produced most of the drama and headlines of Cold War I, Asia provided the battlefields and blood. Our memories may soon be refreshed: If China and North Korea are any indication, either the first Cold War is far from over, or the next one is just beginning.