When the drive for peace only heightens tensions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2007, 12:00am

In the search for peace, the Middle East rivals Korea as a global flashpoint where a lasting solution seems elusive if not impossible. Fighting in the Middle East has probably cost as many lives as wars for control of the Korean peninsula, beginning with the Sino-Japanese war in the early 1890s, the Russian-Japanese war in the early 1900s and on to the Korean war of 1950-1953 and its aftermath.

That litany of suffering does not begin to count the second world war. The slaughter in Europe and the deaths of millions in Nazi concentration camps had much to do with the birth of Israel as the Jewish state, while the slaughter in Asia drove the Japanese from Korea, leading to the division of the peninsula in 1945.

It may be pointless to try to compare the numbers killed in wars, mass executions and political reprisals in both regions. Still, the eagerness of US President George W. Bush to leave a legacy of achievement between Israelis and Palestinians seems to parallel his hopes for reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. If six-party talks to get North Korea to abandon its entire nuclear weapons programme appear difficult, the process of getting Arab states to ever endorse an Israeli-Palestinian settlement seems infinitely more complicated.

One common bond between the Middle East peace process and that on the Korean peninsula may be the lack of realism on the part of America. It's not likely that Israel and the Palestinian state will come to terms any time soon and, even if they were to find some basis for agreement, what about Gaza, the strip of land that has fallen into the hands of Hamas? What, exactly, do Middle East talks have to do with the discussions on North Korea's nuclear weapons or North-South reconciliation?

A common denominator is Iran. As a Shiite Muslim state, Iran exerts tremendous militant influence among Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere, including southern Lebanon. Tehran poses a threat not only to Israel but also to the Korean peninsula. Its refusal to talk about giving up its nuclear programme betrays its long-term interest in emerging as a nuclear military power.

Towards this end, Iran has collaborated with North Korea on technology. Iran's nuclear programme relies on highly enriched uranium, an area in which Pyongyang steadfastly denies having dabbled, while building warheads with plutonium at their core. North Korea may shut down the ageing facilities at its Yongbyon complex, but it's hard to subscribe to US envoy Christopher Hill's claim that the regime will acknowledge all it has done to develop a warhead with highly enriched uranium.

Nor is the Iran-North Korean link the only one between the Middle East and Korean talks. Nobody has come up with a definitive explanation for the Israeli raid on a mysterious Syrian base in September. The assumption is the target was 'nuclear related' and that North Koreans were killed. Since North Korea is a nuclear state and Syria is not, we may assume that Pyongyang was providing expertise, and possibly equipment, for a Syrian nuclear facility. It seems highly unlikely, however, that details will emerge.

What is most frustrating is that all these talks raise false hopes without resolving underlying problems. True, the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis was the first in seven years. And, the six-party talks on North Korea - when they resumed in 2005 - broke an impasse that had existed since the breakdown in 2002 of the 1994 nuclear agreement over the North's highly enriched uranium programme. In a shrinking world, peace processes are intertwined.

They may, however, only deepen confrontations. What if Iran escalates threats against Israel? And what if North Korea, gorged on aid, goes on developing nuclear warheads in secret after acknowledging its 'entire' inventory? These are dangers that Mr Bush, pursuing his 'legacy', prefers to ignore.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals