Politics & Policy

Korea Is Not Quite Iraq

Hypocrisy in service to victory is no vice.

Hypocrisy is not always a bad thing when it is a matter of dealing with nuts with nuclear weapons. Although it is not surprising that both principled critics and cynics should call for sterner action right now against nuclear North Korea than they do against a non-nuclear Iraq, it is hard, after a sorry decade of appeasement, to move precipitously against a rogue nation that could ruin Tokyo or Seoul in a few minutes. The sad truth is that once an outlaw regime possesses nuclear weapons, it wins special consideration as the range of our own countermeasures diminishes — hence the mad scramble of utterly failed regimes in the post-Cold War era to acquire such expensive weapons in the first place, and in turn the importance not to appease them. Imagine the idea of a Kosovo war had Milosevic had one or two nukes.


There are a number of reasons why we should move right now on Iraq, but try to avoid a sudden use of military force against Korea. The first, of course, is the wisdom of hindsight: We wish Iraq not to become the problem of another North Korea. Precisely the fact that we have so few real choices against Pyongyang is good cause to ensure that we not repeat our mistake by allowing similar nuclear proliferation in Iraq. With a dozen or so Iraqi nukes, much of the world’s oil supply would be subject to atomic blackmail, and 20 or so countries in the region would be bullied by Saddam Hussein even as rational and opulent Japan and South Korea are now being intimidated by a lunatic North Korea.

Second, we are already at war with Iraq and have been since 1991, when it broke all of the armistice agreements that had ended the first Gulf War. Those who question that glum assessment should ask what would happen if American ships and planes took a brief vacation from patrolling the no-fly zones and the Persian Gulf. I fear that thousands of dead Kurds and Shiites, coupled with tons of new destructive weapons at Iraqi ports, would be the immediate answer. True, we have thousands of troops at the tripwire in both the Middle East and North Korea, but so far they are already in daily combat in the former, but not yet in the latter.

Third, the geopolitical situation of the two regions is both similar and yet different. Sustained containment offers greater hope of regime collapse in North Korea than in Iraq. Whereas there is not a democracy or a successful balanced economy anywhere near Baghdad, Japan, and South Korea now loom large right by Pyongyang. Iraqis see little freedom and affluence in a Jordan or Saudi Arabia, while North Koreans are surrounded by radically different, democratic, rich — and strong — states just a few miles away. Iraq has oil that can sustain even its mismanaged and brutal lunacracy; North Korea has no natural resources to fuel its state criminality, and is at the point of collapse in desperate need of basic energy.

Baghdad also has no patrons left; a neighboring nuclear China is uneasy over North Korea and could eventually play India to its Pakistan. And even if China remains deeply anti-American and rabidly Communist, its own radical economic reforms have convinced its leadership of the cynical advantages of peace, capitalism, and open trade — if for no other reason than to beat the West at its own game by acquiring hi-tech weaponry. Thus Beijing has some incentive to corral the North Koreans, as does a neighborly Russia. Both care little any more about Saddam Hussein and have even less influence on him, but are within the radioactive winds of the Korean peninsula. By the same token, taking out Saddam won’t draw in a hostile Russia or China, but we cannot quite be sure of our backs in that region should American jets bomb Korea off either of their coasts.

Fourth, there is a direct connection of Iraq with our current war on terror in ways that go beyond our historic conflict with Korea. Whether or not one believes Iraq was involved at the planning level in 9/11, there is real proof that it had something to do with the first World Trade Center bombing, had intelligence meetings with members of al Qaeda, tried to assassinate a former president of the United States, and offered sanctuary to Middle Eastern terrorists from Abu Nidal to Abu Abbas. North Korea is not sending money to suicide bombers and proclaiming itself the center of Middle Eastern resistance to the United States. And through Saddam Hussein’s demise, a reconstituted Iraq will have a positive effect on the war against terror — both by removing a historic supporter of terrorist cabals and by the creation of a postbellum consensual government that can offer millions some hope of a more stable region. To Islamic fundamentalists, the destruction of Saddam Hussein — who is now the self-proclaimed keeper of the faith — will be far more worrisome than the liberation of North Korea.

Fifth, strategically it makes more sense to confront the less-formidable power first, much as we invaded Italy before Germany. If it eventually comes to a shooting war with Korea, it would be better for U.S. troops to have come off a victory against Iraq, rather than to know that after a brutal war against Pyongyang, more fighting looms in the Middle East. And psychologically, we might also gain some deterrence by previous success in Iraq, which the Americans at least associate with Middle Eastern terrorism in a way they do not with North Korea. Saddam Hussein accepts that we will attack him, and in the desperation of his eleventh hour will not be all that intimidated by prior proof of American willpower. In contrast, the North Koreans are still not sure of our resolve — especially considering the ease with which they have tricked past American diplomats — but can learn of it from our defeat of a similar despot who had sought weapons of mass destruction.


There are lessons to be learned from all this that go all the way back to the Korean War, and should teach us the bitter wages of not achieving victory — whether in 1951 or 1991 — when it was within our grasp. Let us hope that our third glaring mistake, Vietnam, chooses to follow the Chinese, rather than the North Korean, model. We have at least learned that only one thing is worse than not confronting a bully at all — letting him slink off when he is beaten.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, someone in some administration was asleep at the wheel in allowing North Korea to achieve nuclear status — a blunder that rivals the disaster of Pakistani nuclear acquisition. Now part of the enhanced Bush doctrine must be to stop absolutely the further proliferation of such weaponry. If we don’t, two very bad things will follow.

First, crazy, failed states will seek to use their atomic status to blackmail the West and its allies for either economic gain or political advantage. Unfortunately the age-old burdens of the West — its freedom and affluence create a reasoned and circumspect, though often naïve, citizenry within an unreasoned and reckless world — leave it particularly vulnerable to illogical demands from outlaw nations. People sipping latté in La Jolla or West Hollywood find the entire notion of nuclear saber-rattling in the Pacific unthinkable; not so those who are starving or often routinely murdered in Iraq, Pakistan, or North Korea. Being crazy with nothing left to lose can create a powerful psychological advantage in brinkmanship. Any veteran of tough schools can attest that thugs paraded their own nihilism as central to their intimidation: “Why stand up to a loser like me, when even if you beat me, you — not I — have everything to forfeit?”

Second, European or Westernized sane nations like Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and Australia at some point will chafe at being held hostage by two-bit thugocracies and thus themselves decide to go nuclear. Japan may shudder still at Hiroshima, but no great nation of its caliber will sit idly by while an upstart failed society sticks nuclear missiles in its face.

In reaction, at that point the United States will confront a real dilemma, being forced either to agree with its allies’ new remedies — and thereby perhaps elevating future multilateral rivalries and spats to confrontations between nuclear powers — or to ensure absolute American guarantees that we will retaliate in kind to threats against our friends, and so extend the American nuclear shield to half the globe. That may be the case right now, but the American people sleep well without being reminded that they may be nuked for pledging San Francisco to protect an antsy Seoul.


So what should we do then with this Korea mess? First, the banal remedy: Work with our allies — Europe, Japan, Russia, and China — to contain North Korea through diplomatic means: the stick of sanctions, boycotts, embargos, and encircling hostile alliances, with the carrot of unspoken assurances not to attack. Both China and Russia may see an opportunity of gaining international prestige by banding together against a bankrupt North Korea — especially in fear that its nukes could either be used against them or handed over to South Korea after unification.

Second, intercept all North Korean weaponry in transit to the Middle East on the high seas — and place an embargo on its exports of missiles and nuclear technology to other rogue regimes.

Third, have some tough discussions about the “German disease” with the South Koreans, and point out that their recent anti-Americanism and inane talk of a third way have only emboldened their enemies. We must remonstrate — given South Korea’s far larger population and gross national product — that there is not necessarily a need for American troops to defend a wealthy nation when they are not wanted. South Koreans can be resolute allies or erstwhile friends, but not something in between when it may be a matter of facing down a truly evil and crazy nuclear rogue state. If they really wish to pay bribe money and accede to blackmail, then they can leave nearly 40,000 Americans out of their calculus of appeasement.

There is something reprehensible about South Korea’s current sneers about American brinkmanship, when 50,000 Americans once died in their snows — and millions more for 50 years have watched their borders — to ensure the freedom they now apparently take for granted. Indeed, a cynic might believe that some South Koreans feel they can amalgamate their enemy without a war — and through such unification at some future date inherit nuclear status by default.

Fourth, we must accelerate our current ABM programs, with special attention to mobile sea-borne missiles that can be stationed at sea off the coast of likely aggressors to serve as first-chance, low-trajectory interceptors of hostile weapons as they take off. Such deterrent anti-ballistic missiles should be discussed publicly once they near deployment, precisely to apprise the North Koreans and others of our own protection against their nuclear extortion.

Lately, following resolute victories in Kosovo and Afghanistan, we have just begun to regain a sense of deterrence after a decade of appeasement. But it is a long, slow process and we cannot stop now, when for the foreseeable future the dangers of complacency will continue to dwarf those of action.


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