President Bush greeted North Korea’s expulsion of U.N. atomic-weapons inspectors and its threats to continue bomb production by saying that he expected the “situation . . . will be resolved peacefully.” At the same time, he warned that Saddam Hussein’s “day of reckoning is coming.” Liberals cite this as an example of backwards thinking — giving the potential threat (Iraq, which has no nukes) priority over the actual one (North Korea, which has). In fact, it is an acknowledgment of the importance of the nuclear Rubicon. Once a nation crosses it, it becomes a threat indeed. All the more reason to prevent the Baathist megalomaniac sitting athwart the world’s largest oil field from becoming a cut-rate superpower.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rode to the sound of the guns and announced that the United States could fight two regional wars simultaneously if need be. This was a necessary bluff. In fact we would find it very difficult. All the more reason to rebuild our defenses, thinned by a decade of post-Cold War neglect.
Even if we had a Gulf War-era arsenal, we would probably do what the Bush administration is now doing: seize any expedient to play the North Korea problem out, until Iraq is dealt with. A victory over Baghdad would not only clear the board, but send an unmissable signal to the Stalinists in Pyongyang.
Even if the U.N. inspectors go back, a trust-but-verify solution will not work. The North Korean regime sees a nuclear arsenal as a key to prominence, and perhaps to revenue (think of all the willing purchasers for spare bombs). To address that contingency we must let the dictatorship know, even in the current treading-water phase, that any credible evidence of loose nukes, delivered or even offered for sale on the world market, will be assumed to be Pyongyang’s responsibility, and the direst consequences will ensue.
Nor will inspections plus sanctions do the trick. The North Korean people are already starving. Pyongyang’s response to further economic pressure will be to let them starve some more, so long as the Kim family retains its palaces, and its weapons.
For the long run, as Adam Garfinkle suggests in the Jan. 27, 2003, issue of National Review, we should begin pulling our troops out of South Korea. The South Korean electorate, like all beneficiaries, chafes at their protectors. President-elect Roh Moo Hyun wants the United States and North Korea to negotiate. Time to let Roh know that he will be negotiating directly. His nation is more populous, and far wealthier, than its feral neighbor. Japan is larger and richer still. We should certainly offer to include them under a missile-defense umbrella. But they are also capable of fending for themselves.
China would dearly like to avoid a nuclearized Japan and South Korea. So long as the United States bears the entire burden of securing the peace in northeast Asia, China will be content to let Pyongyang foment trouble for us. If the result of proliferation is the possibility of wider proliferation, they may see their interest in working with the United States (as well as Russia and Japan) to put Kim Jong Il’s horror show on the road to extinction. Which would be a great blessing for its accursed people.