Monday, January 20, 2003

North Korea: Now What?

The most troubling problem for the world today, indeed the greatest peril to humanity for the last half century, is the impending proliferation of nuclear weapons. The idea that irresponsible despots of the ilk of Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein might hold, make threats with, and actually use nuclear weapons must be frightening even to the cowards of the looney left who cling to inchoate mental Ostrichism rather than face the responsibility that comes with being the world's most globally involved nation. The question boils down to this: does it ever make sense to yield to blackmail?

Even philosophers have little to argue over that question. Blackmail is not a tree in the woods. Blackmailers will always pull the trigger, whatever the victim does. There is little to debate here, merely history and experience. Blackmail is like Pandora's box or toothpaste: once the threat is out, the situation is irrevocably changed. If the blackmailer is serious, only the timing of the realization of the threat is in question. If the threat is a bluff. it must be called. Like a hand of poker, the cards must be played the same, regardless of their value. Any poker player must agree that anyone who plays a weak hand differently from a strong hand will always lose.

So, what do we do about North Korea? To those who, like me, believe that there are three sides to any story, (your side, my side, and the truth) most arguments can be made more ordered and logical if the two sides are put in the light. Therefore the truth is somewhere between: "A": accepting Korea as a nuclear power and "B": having North Korea's Kim Jong Il meekly dismantle his nuclear reactors and weapon materials. While there might be sane people who believe that "A" is possible, or even desirable, "B" can only become true after a war that no sane person welcomes.

One point of view holds that we in the Western Hemisphere, and even in Europe (of which only a small slice is in the Western Hemisphere) should leave the problem for the "locals" to deal with. Leaving China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea to their own devices may seem attractive to the head-in-the-sand set, but that point of view denies the fact that Kim has delivery systems that can directly threaten us, and also has shown a willingness, even a zest, for selling these weapons to others. This scenario also forces a period of instability in Asia, with many possible outcomes. Instability between the Asian nuclear powers threatens worldwide nuclear holocaust. One can easily forsee that, even if war is avoided, what will emerge is an Asia in which there are a half dozen nuclear powers, with Japan sitting on immense plutonium resources already, and a possibly reunified Korea becoming a formidable force to be reckoned with. China and Russia will not stand for that. Or so one might think. Russia recently proposed a plan for mollifying the despot, offering economic benefits in return for a nuclear free Korea.

The path to "C", which appears to me to be the creation of some form of a non-nuclear Korea without resorting to warfare, will be very difficult to achieve. History offers no instances of appeasement leading to peaceful outcomes. And Bush's recent vacillation does not inspire confidence. Only one thing is certain: war with North Korea, especially before the crisis with Iraq is over, must be avoided, because it is unwinnable. And without clear victory, the outcome is unthinkable.