The pygmy that Dubya turned into a monster

Korea has been such a huge and intractable problem for so many decades now that it is easy to think of it as just an unpleasant fact of life, like drizzle or midges or the aches and pains of age. There it lies on the far side of the world; we know something's wrong over there, but we can't always remember what.

The Korean War was the one that our grandfathers were too old for, and our fathers too young. We could probably find it on an atlas, but it would take a while. No one we know has been on holiday there. They make cars and stereos like the Japanese, and there's a nutty dictator with bad hair. And then, every few years, like a large but lethargic Komodo dragon dozing in the corner, Korea opens its eyes, lumbers into action and bites us painfully on the buttocks.

It happened this week, with a literal bang, when North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test. Next came a barrage of short-range missiles, followed on Wednesday by what sounded alarmingly like a declaration of war by the communist dictatorship in the North against the democratic South. At such moments, politicians and commentators scramble to catch up and to explain what is happening, while the rest of us listen in confusion. Then the flap subsides, and Korea recedes to the margins, and we are allowed to forget about it - until the next time.

Such thinking is deluded, for the Korean conflict is one in which the people of the affluent transatlantic nations are deeply implicated, and for which they could pay a heavy price. It has the potential to become, in an instant, the worst war of the past 60 years; this danger becomes greater by the month. And it has turned out this way not through some abstract historical process, but because of the acts, and in large part the omissions, of our elected leaders in the past eight years.

The present Korean crisis is a by-product of the complex of instincts, prejudices and vested interests best identified by a single name: George W. Bush. Long before Mr Bush came to power, of course, the Korean peninsula was a profoundly troubled place. Half a century after the Korean War, it remained divided on ideological lines, between the Stalinist North and the increasingly affluent and democratic South.

The North, deprived of the support of its Cold War sponsors, China and the Soviet Union, struggled to feed its people and maintain its immense army. Then during the presidency of Bill Clinton, it turned out that it had a secret weapon - a nuclear reactor capable of generating weapons-grade plutonium.

President Clinton took this seriously - at one point, he was within hours of ordering an air strike on the Yongbyon reactor. But at the last minute, war was averted and, after prolonged and difficult negotiations, a complicated, fragile and unwieldy deal agreed between North Korea and a conglomerate of concerned nations. Fuel oil and “safe” reactors, without the potential to fuel nuclear bombs, would be provided in exchange for freezing and eventually dismantling Yongbyon.

Both sides would breach parts of the agreement, but the seals stayed on the reactor. A nightmare had been averted which, to Mr Clinton at least, would have been worth going to war to prevent - North Korea with nuclear weapons. Enter, stage right, George Bush.

At the tail end of the Clinton presidency, Kim Jong Il received a cordial visit from none less than the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. So one can imagine his confusion when Mr Bush came to power. The new Administration was not just cool towards North Korea, but grossly insulting to an extent rare even between countries at war.

Mr Kim, according to Mr Bush, was a “pygmy”, and “a spoilt child”. “I loathe Kim Jong Il,” he told the journalist Bob Woodward, who described the President “waving his finger in the air”. North Korea was lumped in with Iraq and Iran as the third member of the Axis of Evil. In 2003 Iraq was invaded. What North Korean dictator with his wits about him would fail to conclude that he might be next?

President Bush was, of course, quite right to dislike Mr Kim, a ludicrous character who personally runs perhaps the cruellest regime on Earth. But anyone can “loathe” a vicious dictator - the difficult thing is working out what to do about it. With noses held high, unwilling to sully their hands by dealing with the North, Mr Bush and his people effectively chose to do nothing.

The disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan came about because of aggressive action, planned badly and executed without consideration of its consequences. But neglect can be just as dangerous, as North Korea shows. Left to his own devices, and bathed in the passive hostility of the world's only superpower, Mr Kim took the only practical step available to his broke and friendless regime - he got back to work on his nuclear weapons programme. The Yongbyon reactor was opened, and the spent fuel rods removed and reprocessed.

At each step, the Bush Administration growled. But short of committing to an appalling war, there was nothing it could do. Many diplomats privately rued the shortsightedness of US policy, but America's allies, including the British Government, never questioned or attempted to divert it.

The risible Six-Party Talks, a round table intended to save the US from having to deal directly with the North, served only to distract attention from the staggering thing that was unfolding. In his final two years, finally sensing what they had allowed to happen, Mr Bush's people executed a panicky U-turn and engaged in direct talks. Far too late.

The nightmare that even a despised liberal such as Bill Clinton had regarded as intolerable had come to pass. North Korea has nuclear weapons, derived directly from the plant at Yongbyon. Mr Kim's is a wily and mendacious regime; it might, of course, have secretly pursued them anyway. But a covert nuclear programme would have taken years to come to fruition. As it turned out, Mr Kim was able to do it at speed, in full view, because the leader of the free world was too proud and stubborn to sit down and talk.

Barack Obama has made it clear that, in principal, he will talk to anyone. But in eight years North Korea has become a different regime. Its politics are murkier still with rumours that Mr Kim is ill and planning his succession. And it is a nuclear power, with the potential to destroy Seoul and Tokyo. George Bush's pygmy has become a monster, and it will be the work of years to bring him back down to size.

Richard Lloyd Parri