Korea: Our Bad and Worse Choices

by Victor Davis Hanson

American Enterprise Institute Magazine

The North Korean crisis offers only bad and worse choices for the United States. Kim Jong Il cultivates an air of lunacy, and threatens to nuke the Western critics who are more concerned with the plight of his North Korean people than he is.

Poor Japan is squeezed between nuclear China and North Korea. As a prosperous democracy that stays true to its nonproliferation pledges, its rewards are overflights of test missiles launched from a rogue state, coupled with the periodic venom of a bullying China.

Who can figure out the Chinese sphinx? Will it pressure its erstwhile Stalinist client to calm down, in fear of antagonizing the United States and imperiling its own $300 billion trade surplus? More likely the ascendant Chinese are amused by the sheer blood sport of seeing their crazed vassal tie an exasperated America in knots. Is North Korea really out of control, and thus a threat to the breakneck development of China, or is it a useful surrogate to remind the Japanese and South Koreans who really holds the leash of this rabid dog?

South Korea suffers increasingly the postmodern maladies of the affluent-and cynical-West. Its citizens want pan-Korean solidarity, but not to the point of losing the one-sided benefits of their American alliance. University students demonstrate for Americans to get out of Seoul. But they don’t really want us to leave the Demilitarized Zone.

We are supposed to stay on the DMZ and endure the increasingly cheap and bothersome anti-Americanism of the “friends” we protect. We could leave in a huff, but we might then watch a successful democracy be blackmailed or shelled, sacrificing a half-century of achievement that cost billions of dollars and thousands of American lives. The more cynical might suggest that an ambivalent South Korea is hoping to finesse nuclear status on the cheap should its hoped-for unification with the North transpire.

So what is America to do? Bill Clinton, with help from the peripatetic Jimmy Carter, paid out billions in fuel and grain bribes-and the North developed nukes anyway. George W. Bush, slandered as the near-criminal unilateralist, seems to be about the only statesman now pushing for multilateral talks among all the concerned parties. If Mr. Bush was too alone in Iraq, his liberal critics now apparently think he’s not alone enough in talking to Kim Jong Il.

Other than retreating to Fortress America, there are three possible courses of action in the face of North Korea’s dangerous mix of crazed autocracy and the bomb. One choice is to accept the status quo: We could remain reactive, seeking to moderate rather than alter events. We would cease all bribery aimed at heading off further nuclear weapon development, and hope that China might soothe Pyongyang enough to buy us some time.
But time for what? For things inside North Korea to get so bad that the regime simply collapses? Time to finish our anti-ballistic-missile system that protects Seoul, Tokyo, and the West Coast? How many millions more would die before Kim Jong Il vanishes? Could the region live in the meantime with a nuclear North Korea actively testing nukes and issuing creepy threats?

A more muscular policy would prod China harder. It would remind Beijing that it broke the unspoken postwar covenant of the region. Each nuclear patron-the Soviet Union, China, the U.S.-was supposed to rein in its respective surrogates. That means China keeps North Korea from nuclear weapons that could harm the Westernized world, while the United States makes sure China will not have to deal with a nearby nuclear Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.

A sober China should not want three more nuclear powers on its border, in addition to Pakistan, India, Russia, as well as the U.S. But China might call our bluff on unleashing our surrogates in the region. That could lead to an Asian rim armed to the teeth with nukes and other weapons.

The third, and most frightening, alternative is a blockade, followed later by a preemptive strike, once North Korea begins to test its nuclear-tipped missiles. We could end Kim Jong Il’s regime and free the North Korean populace. But it’s possible that thousands of Americans and millions of Koreans and Japanese could be lost in the struggle, or at least that Seoul might be left in rubble as the price of its freedom.

There are no good choices now-just the hard lesson not to allow a maniacal regime to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place. We may think North Koreans are crazy. But observers like the Iranians, for example, must be thinking they were crazy smart.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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