A Funny Morality

North Korea as a metaphor of the times

by Victor Davis Hanson

The Claremont Institute

The disclosures of North Korean duplicity in acquiring nuclear weapons were disturbing for a variety of reasons, involving more than our national security. That Pyongyang had been lying and cheating all along since President Clinton’s accords of summer 1994 was most galling because it seemed to discredit a number of the comfortable American assumptions that lay behind our past bewildering trust in compliance, inspections, dialogue, and safeguard agreements. The current efforts to spin the frightening revelations — perhaps the accords prevented even more nukes being produced, perhaps otherwise we would have had a million dead in a war in 1994, perhaps President Bush knew about this for months, perhaps we should now try the same diplomatic means with Saddam Hussein that we are using to salvage the situation in Korea — only show that we have learned nothing from the past.

Apparently a privileged class of men and women in the West, the beneficiaries of higher education and of ample means, share a tendency to believe that the world works according to their own Enlightenment logic — or at least that its reasoned judgment can appeal even to the uninitiated like Kim Il-Sung. And the ego of these new missionaries of wisdom is mighty.

Thus Mr. Carter once gushed that the Korean dictators, who had executed thousands of their own citizens, had suddenly on his arrival been transmogrified into “intelligent and well informed” statesmen and thus worthy partners in his own Cartesian dialectics. Since his 1994 visit, he has boasted that he never ordered a single military attack during his term, that he was the first American to go to Pyongyang in 43 years, that he wished to begin his Habitat for Humanity project in the North, and that the United States had no business building a missile-defense system since North Korea had no nuclear capability.

Indeed, Kim Il-Sung and his dictatorship were seen more as a symptom of poverty or ignorance. For Western idealists, it is apparently too depressing to accept that evil is a perverse desire to satisfy innate human psychic and material appetites at the expense of others. Thus Mr. Carter in his pride assumed that the gift of two multimillion-dollar light-water nuclear reactors would obviously be appreciated as a logical effort to help an impoverished society generate electricity for its people. Why would any sane state use its fissionable material to build bombs with which to blackmail humane societies abroad, when it could power water pumps for its own starving citizens at home?

Yet in contrast, ordinary Americans who may have subsidized those bombs through gifts of food, fuel oil, and advanced technology — but without the education, privilege, or egos of Messrs. Clinton and Carter — would have instantly sensed that impoverished nations that cannot feed their own people have no business being given 21st-century atomic plants as bribes for not developing weapons of mass destruction — especially if they have a record of exporting ballistic missiles to other murderous regimes and firing them over the heads of their neighbors. Indeed, most normal folks would have objected that both our ex-presidents had, in fact, done something quite evil by allowing the safety of the region to hinge on the good-faith pledges of autocrats. In short, they did not believe Mr. Clinton’s statement in 1994 that “North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program.”

So there was an arrogance throughout the 1994 accords — as if Carter/Clinton, with rare insight and intellectual deftness, had transcended the human pathologies of mere mortals. In 1998 in California there was much publicity given to some Berkeley engineers, who ostentatiously announced that they too were traveling to North Korea to install windmills. Why did they go? Because — just like residents of Marin County — North Koreans, in between nuclear plants, would now be desperately in need of non-polluting and sustainable sources of power. Millions may have been starving as a murderous regime built nukes, but California engineers could look the other way if it were a question of spreading the gospel of non-polluting energy.

The problems of such utopianism are twofold: Its fuzzy rhetoric of peace and love is as unassailable as the reality of its endangering innocents is irrefutable; and its purveyors are always lauded for their noble efforts, but rarely blamed for the carnage that comes after. So too it will be in the present catastrophe. Mr. Carter returns to Plains with his Noble prize; Mr. Clinton will continue to bite his lip as he makes millions lecturing about his peacemaking and garnering sundry awards and medals. Meanwhile, less flashy diplomats will deal with their mess. The latter are already being blamed for telling the truth that North Korea really is evil — even as they’re granted little leverage over a rogue nation with the ability to vaporize a Seoul, Tokyo, or soon a Los Angeles.

Moral equivalence peeps out beneath the present Korean fiasco. In the new morality, institutions and values are seen as relative concepts and not subject to absolute or unchanging criteria of evaluation. Instead, those with supposed power oppress and make the rules, while those without suffer the consequences. Thus a powerful democracy and its elected leaders are seen as not necessarily more worthy of consideration — or “privilege” — than the non-West, by any objective standard of politics or culture. In this view Israel has nuclear weapons, so why not Iraq? America stockpiles weapons of mass destruction, so what is the big deal with North Korea? Was not the United States “uncooperative” and “inflexible” in its prior stance toward North Korea, and thus simply unable to appreciate the nuances of its alternative politics?

But democratic societies involve consensual government, with a free press and a political opposition that ensures that the public can chastise or throw out leaders who are neither reasonable nor sane. Not so with a Kim Jong-Il or Saddam Hussein. It is more likely that Pakistan, which is undemocratic, will use its “Islamic” bomb than will democratic India, in the same manner that a nuclear China poses a greater threat than do Great Britain or France.

Accepting that acts are simply separable from their moral landscape is much easier than assessing such concepts of “preemption,” “weapons of mass destruction,” and “U.N. resolutions” on the basis of the unchanging ethical circumstances involved. If a Mr. Carter brags that he never used military force “once” (I supposed the failed Iranian rescue mission does not count), we should ask whether such restraint saved or cost lives, and then assess his self-proclaimed morality on that basis. Was the world a safer or a more dangerous place after he left?

If a democratic nation is trying to stop a fascist nation from killing thousands, preemption would be as good a policy then as it would be bad were the roles and circumstances to be reversed. If WMDs are in North Korea’s hands they are frightening in a way they are not under British auspices. And if democratic states in the Security Council condemn a rogue nation, then a U.N. resolution means something more than the majority votes of totalitarians that revile a democratic state. Why? Because democratic and liberal societies by their very nature deserve more of an absolute privilege not accorded to dictators and tyrants — always. The world’s entire anthrax stockpile monopolized in storage in a Britain or Australia is a far safer proposition than the possession of just one pound of it by the likes of Iraq or North Korea.

We also saw something of a condescending multiculturalism in the present tragedy. The South Korean government had recently adopted the “Sunshine” policy of open appeasement. Japan seemed equally eager to placate the madmen in Pyongyang. Perhaps the Clinton administration saw this as an Asian problem, where cultural nuance and complexity overrode the age-old common sense that you don’t give fissionable materials as blackmail awards to totalitarians either in the East or the West. A realist who believed that human values trump culture would not have seen North Korea’s neighbors as fellow Asians dealing with local problems according to specific cultural protocols. Instead, he would sigh that they were dangerously imperiling the safety of millions of their own citizens — as well as those of the 100,000 U.S. servicemen in that area.

Set against those postmodern and post-heroic theories remain tragic truths that will never disappear. Unfree and totalitarian regimes like North Korea lie and always will lie, for two simple reasons. One: Without a free press and a political opposition, they can. And two: They must, because their system does not work and would collapse were their people free and able to speak freely. Second, appeasement — in the past, now, and for all time — only encourages thugs and killers, and proves far more dangerous and costly in the long run than either preemption or early resolute opposition (in the manner in which Israel took out the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, or we pondered the same in 1994 in North Korea). Third, culture affects the way a people fights, creates government, eats, and sleeps, but it does not trump human nature itself. Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Il-Sung may have had culturally specific preferences in their terror and mass murder, but as human tyrants of the ages they were predictable in their behavior and thus could only be opposed, never appeased. In short, Thucydides or Hobbes would know more about the North Korean leader than would the present leadership in either nearby Tokyo or Seoul.

So let us beware of personable but smug men like Mr. Carter and Mr. Clinton, the prizewinners who assure us that either their ostentatious morality or their self-righteous glibness is equivalent to wisdom. It is not. I’d prefer a less nuanced and less conceited Truman or Reagan, who sensed something evil about the Sung dynasty that our present generation in its missionary pride has forgotten.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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