The Florida Keys War
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous nine chapters of this series we looked at the causes of the Florida Keys War; the course of the war itself; and how the course of world events was transformed in the war’s aftermath. In this segment we’ll deal with the Gore Administration’s standoff with North Korea over that country’s efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and its showdown with the Milosevic regime in Serbia.
Shock and Awe: 1998-2000
Technically, the state of war which was declared between North Korea and the United Nations when the Korean War began in 1950 is still in effect; the armistice that was signed in 1953 to end the fighting does not explicitly declare peace, it merely obliges the two sides to stop shooting. Bearing this in mind, it wasn’t hard to understand why Kim Jong Il would want to defy international law to make his country a nuclear power.
What was hard to understand was why he did so while facing an antagonist who had both the intent and the means to, as it were, catch him with his hand in the cookie jar. Even while out on the campaign trail stumping for his fellow Democrats in the 1998 midterm Congressional elections, President Gore kept one eye on the Korean nuclear situation at all times. Speeches at campaign rallies were interspersed with daily briefings on the latest intelligence from the CIA and the Pentagon concerning the North Koreans’ A-bomb activity; satellite recon photos of the Yongbyon reactor plant, believed to be the bomb program’s headquarters, were electronically relayed to him aboard Air Force One at least twice a day.
In October of 1998, just over two months after the cruise missile strike that killed Osama bin Laden, CIA director George J. Tenet testified before the US Senate Intelligence Committee that his agency had obtained concrete evidence indicating the North Korean government was actively engaged in trying to acquire not only the tools to manufacture nuclear weapons but the means with which to deliver them. As one case in point, he cited a trip taken that very week by a North Korean official to Europe to obtain aluminum tubes suitable for use in long-range ballistic missiles; if North Korea successfully developed such weapons, Tenet warned, not only would all of America’s allies in the Far East be threatened with nuclear attack but there was even a possibility America itself could be hit.
There was also the matter of an attempt by North Korean officials to acquire samples of uranium oxide from the government of Niger; this substance, also known as "yellow cake" because of its yellow appearance, could in sufficient quantities be used to produce at least one nuclear bomb, maybe more. In no uncertain terms Tenet told his listeners that it was possible, even likely, it would be necessary for the United States to take military action against Kim Jong Il’s regime in the next 6-12 months. As if to vindicate the CIA director’s assertions, that very same day North Korea’s army begin massing troops and equipment along the northern side of the 38th parallel, ostensibly for training exercises but in reality to block efforts to enforce UN resolutions mandating that Pyongyang’s nuclear activities be terminated.
Deeming it critical to secure international cooperation before he undertook military action of any kind regarding Pyongyang, President Gore sent his Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, on a seven-nation tour of Asia shortly after the midterm elections were over. Her goal was to assess who the White House could count on to back it up if war erupted on the Korean Peninsula over the nuclear issue.
Her first stop, Vietnam, proved an exercise in futility: when she arrived in Saigon she found the Vietnamese government was hopelessly distracted by the latest flareup of a long-standing argument over whether the nation’s capital should remain in Saigon or be moved to the ancient imperial city of Hue.1 She never even got the opportunity to broach the matter of the Korean situation with her hosts.
Her luck with her second stop, China, was hardly much better; the Chinese foreign minister reiterated Beijing’s stance that it would only support diplomatic or economic means of resolving the standoff with Pyongyang. Apart from not wanting to unnecessarily jeopardize Chinese-North Korean relations, CPC general secretary Jiang Zemin was concerned that getting involved in a shooting war on the Korean Peninsula might afford US intelligence a glimpse of Chinese military secrets if Beijing let its guard down for too long.
Things went better at her third stop, South Korea; the Kim Dae Jung government in Seoul shared Gore’s concerns about Kim Jong Il’s nuclear ambitions and had already indicated to the White House that it would be willing to back US military action against North Korea if worst came to worst. Indeed, even before Tenet appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee the ROK army had started bolstering its defensive positions along the southern side of the DMZ to guard against a surprise attack by the North, and South Korean air defense squadrons patrolled the skies 24 hours a day. Though Jung had initially come to power intending to pursue what he called a "sunshine policy"2 based on increased co-operation with the North, his stance had changed dramatically after KCIA3 debriefings with a North Korean defector revealed that Pyongyang had been secretly conspiring to have Jung killed as the first step in a covert campaign of sabotage and terror aimed at destabilizing South Korea to the point where the NKPA could simply walk into the South and impose a reunification of the two Koreas under Communist rule at gunpoint.4
Japan, though constrained by its pacifist constitution from taking part in any offensive military actions against North Korea, was more than willing to share intelligence with the White House concerning North Korean troop movements; they also gave Secretary of State Albright a written guarantee that the JASDF5 would assist the US Air Force with intercepting North Korean strike aircraft should they try to attack US bases in Japan or South Korea.
By far the most enthusiastic support for a military showdown with North Korea came from Australia; John Howard, then in his second year as prime minister, was eager to teach a lesson to the Marxist ruler he deemed "a demented little monkey"6 and told Albright that his government would contribute missile frigates, infantry, and at least one squadron of F/A-18s to any future campaign against Pyongyang. New Zealand PM Jenny Shipley, despite internal troubles that were threatening to topple her coalition government, also came out in support of the Gore Administration’s tough stance on dealing with the Kim Jong Il dictatorship.
On Albright’s final stop, a meeting with Russian premier Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, the US Secretary of State was presented with a rather unusual proposal for resolving the sticky problem with North Korea’s nuclear program. Putin suggested that the US, Japan, Russia, and China hold multilateral negotiations with the two Koreas for the purpose of constructing a framework for the dismantling of Pyongyang’s A-bomb program.
Realizing that his warlike bluff was being called, Kim Jong Il hastened to adopt a more conciliatory attitude on the nuclear disarmament issue. In early January of 1999 he sent a message to then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stating his willingness to participate in multilateral disarmament talks with the US, Japan, Russia, China, and South Korea. Surprised but relieved by this apparent change in posture on Pyongyang’s part, President Gore temporarily suspended preparations for a military strike on North Korea.
Halfway around the world, however, the situation in the former Yugoslavia had seriously deteriorated; Slobodan Milosevic, sure that President Gore was too distracted by the Korean situation to interfere with his "ethnic cleansing" of non-Serbian communities, had unleashed the Serbian army on the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Kosovo, undermining UN peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans and stoking fears of renewed ethnic conflict in central Europe.
Milosevic’s gambit quickly blew up in his face; even as the first Serbian warplanes were bombing Kosovar civilian targets, Vice-President Lieberman fired off a stern letter to the Serbian ambassador at the UN warning that any further acts of aggression against Kosovo would be deemed by the United States as just cause for sending troops to intervene against Serbia. Secretary of State Albright reinforced the message by holding a summit with the foreign ministers of Bosnia-Herzcegovina and Croatia that resulted in a military aid pact between the United States and the two former Yugoslav republics. And in case Milosevic needed any further proof that the Gore Administration meant what it said, Defense Secretary and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell sent a carrier battle group to the Mediterranean with orders to strike every major military and command/control facility in Serbia if Belgrade didn’t end hostilities against Kosovo by midnight US Eastern time on February 1st.
Alarmed at the prospect that their country might be headed for a war with the world’s lone remaining superpower, thousands of dissident Serbians began marching in the streets of Belgrade calling for Milosevic to end his genocidal campaign against the Kosovars. But the Serbian dictator refused to hear of it, instead decreeing that the Serbian army would continue operations in Kosovo for as long as he deemed it necessary.
As the clock ticked closer and closer to the White House’s February 1st deadline, some of Milosevic’s own generals found themselves sharing the protestors’ worries about a military confrontation with the United States. Historically Russia had long been a Serbian ally, but Russian premier Vladimir Putin was worried about jeopardizing his anti-terrorism coalition with the West if his armed forces intervened on Serbia’s behalf; he also didn’t want to risk being seen as getting too cozy with a man most of the rest of the world regarded as a bloodthirsty tyrant. And in any case, he considered quashing the separatist guerrillas in Chechnya a higher priority than pulling Belgrade’s irons out of the fire where Kosovo was concerned.
Thus, it was in hindsight almost inevitable that dissenters in both the civilian and military sectors of Serbian society should join hands to do what they did next. On January 30th, 48 hours before Washington’s deadline was scheduled to expire, a group of anti-Milosevic army officers staged a coup at the Federal Palace in Belgrade, arresting Milosevic and installing Serbia’s top civilian opposition leader as its new head of state. The new Serbian president hastened to pull his military out of Kosovo and assure the international community that Milosevic and his cohorts would be duly tried for the war crimes they had committed or sanctioned over the past seven years.
President Gore’s approval rating increased considerably in the wake of his successful confrontation with Milosevic, and he was quick to take advantage of that surge to start his re-election bid. Unfortunately, an old financial transaction from his 1996 campaign would come back to bite him; in March of 2000, just a few weeks after Gore won the New Hampshire Democratic primaries, Nightline aired an investigative report questioning the legality of a campaign contribution Gore had accepted from a Buddhist temple in California during his ’96 run. Gore admitted that he might have made some errors concerning paperwork, but denied having knowingly broken the campaign finance laws.
In the post-Watergate era, however, such denials aren’t always accepted at face value. Before long, Gore would find himself engulfed in one of the biggest American political scandals of the 20th century...
To Be Continued
Footnotes1 The argument still hasn’t been settled, unfortunately; at least twice since 1997 fistfights have broken out over this issue on the floor of the Vietnamese national parliament.
2 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunshine_policy for further information on this program.
3 The Korean Central Intelligence Agency, South Korea’s main counterintelligence service.
4 "NK Defector Blows Whistle On Jung Hit Plot", New York Post, July 15th, 1998.
5 Japanese Air Self-Defense Force.
6 A comparison which did not sit well with Australian animal rights advocates; barely twelve hours after Secretary of State Albright left Canberra, hundreds of demonstrators marched outside Howard’s office demanding that he apologize for those comments. Howard, predictably, refused.