An annual show of muscle
By MAX REINHARDT
It’s that time of year again: time for another tussle with North Korea. This time last year the Hermit Kingdom was in trouble for illegally launching a rocket in celebration of Kim Il-sung’s centennial birthday. One year later, the country’s saber rattling has been ratcheted up to an unprecedented level. In early March, news broke that North Korea announced via state TV that it was nullifying the 60-year-old armistice with South Korea and its allies, which includes the U.S.
As the communist country sets itself on another collision course with the international community, we must ask ourselves: what lessons should we reflect upon when confronting North Korea and other rogue regimes? Two instantly come to mind.
First, we should look back 22 years to Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait. Before the attack, Saddam Hussein met with the American ambassador to Iraq. From that meeting, he inferred that he had America’s tacit approval because the George H.W. Bush administration said it had no interest in Arab-Arab disputes. He invaded, made Kuwait the 19th province of Iraq, America intervened and we all know how that turned out.
Here, it appears that we have learned from history. In the last two weeks, the American military has shipped a new missile defense system to Guam, sailed a destroyer to the Yellow Sea and flown B-2 bombers over South Korea in a joint military exercise. Take note, a B-2 can carry a payload of 16 nuclear bombs, more than twice as many as North Korea has, according to the C.I.A. The U.S. is giving a much needed reality check to Kim Jong-un and his generals, and, hopefully, they will get the message.
Our second lesson, and probably the more obvious one, is our recent attack on Iraq. Here, Saddam Hussein resisted international inspections because he did not want the Iranians, as well as his own captive people, to know that he did not have weapons of mass destruction. We cannot risk preemptively attacking another tin-pot dictatorship if there is a possibility that they are bluffing.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Korean leadership has developed a formula for shaking down concessions from the international community: offer false hopes for denuclearization, walk away from the negotiating table, get belligerent and then demand food, aid and investments. After two decades of dealing with Pyongyang’s unhinged craziness, we know they are blowing smoke. Now, it’s just a darker, more nauseating smoke than usual.
Kim Jong-un has declared that the Korean peninsula is in a “state of war,” but that does not mean they are going to attack. Technically, the peninsula has been in a “state of war” for over 60 years. Anything short of a North Korean attack on South Korea, Japan or American territory should not result in full-scale war. Our fiscal constraints and lassitude for conflict won’t allow it.
However, the North Korean kerfuffle is not just about learning from the past, it is about predicting the future.
One has to wonder how a nuclear Iran would behave. Unlike North Korea, the Islamic republic is not without powerful allies, including Russia, China and Venezuela. A nuclear Iran might be able to bully the international community into lifting some of the sanctions on its nuclear program, enabling it to easily build up a big, atomic arsenal, not to mention the havoc it could wreak on Israel.
A nuclear Iran, like a nuclear North Korea, would be able to act aggressively with impunity. It’s not an incredible stretch to assume that Iran would use its nuclear umbrella to up its support for anti-Israel terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
After all, since going nuclear, North Korea has torpedoed a South Korean cruiser, killing 46 seamen, shelled a southern island, killing two civilians, and repeatedly flouted international law by testing long-range missiles and new nuclear weapons
In the past, ambiguity and preemption have come back to bite us. War with North Korea will come only if Pyongyang wants it to, but they probably don’t. The U.S. should only attack if American territory is in danger.
But, as we go forward, we must remember that North Korea’s bellicosity and lawlessness might seem minor by comparison if Iran should ever join the nuclear club.