Keep North Korea in Perspective

This Sunday's political talk shows offered an excellent cartoon of a political/military complex that is frantically looking for causes to replace Iraq and Afghanistan in order to justify its place front and center in the news and the fight for budget dollars. The arena is, laughably, a fourth-rate power that happens to have nuclear weapons; a North Korea that is essentially a criminal enterprise with a country attached.

Does this mean that we should ignore North Korea? Of course not. Its possession of nuclear material means that a nation willing to do anything to raise a few bucks might be willing to sell such material to the worst of the bad guys, and it is about this that we need to be most concerned. But an attack? Please. This is a bully kleptocracy that loves its creature comforts, and is not the least likely to exchange its pleasures for national suicide.

Our tendency is to point at states on our hit list and suggest that some of them are run by crazy people who will follow self-destructive strategies that have no worthwhile outcome. This virtually never turns out to be the case. A single dynasty has ruled North Korea almost since the end of World War II, which means that the three generations of Kims are crazy like foxes, and are mainly blessed by a loyal armed forces and docile population. Is the current Kim really ready to attack any of his neighbors just to prove that he really is crazy? Even if he could escape utter destruction, what would he possibly accomplish?

There are two stubborn problems relating to Korea. The first is China. The Chinese government is stuck with the status quo at present, because it will not tolerate either a North Korean collapse or a unified, democratic Korea. China is in the way of any action via the United Nations that threatens North Korean viability. Lesser measures have had little impact because North Korea always finds a way around sanctions and other measures, and because the world is reluctant to let its population starve to death.

The second problem is the "N" word. North Korea's nuclear testing has demonstrated a capability that is primitive when compared to other nuclear states, but still worthy of our utmost attention. First, whenever a state owns nuclear weapons, its neighbors are, sooner or later, nervous enough to consider their own nuclear arsenal. South Korea is now talking about developing an enrichment program. Japan, which could easily have weapons in months, has expressed nervousness. With India and Pakistan in the general neighborhood, one can only guess who else might express similar interests.

Second is the issue of North Korea-fueled proliferation. Small attempts at the sale or theft of fissionable material have been thwarted in the past in other parts of the world, and it is unlikely that most governments would risk becoming instant pariahs, or worse, because they've sold or dispensed nuclear material. The possibility exists, and what we need is to make strong and unambiguous policy declarations about what will happen to countries that follow that path. I would suspect that even China would not step between North Korea and the international community should the North Koreans do anything as misguided as to make nuclear material available to terrorists. Due to the seriousness of such a step, it is unlikely that China would simply sit back and allow such an eventuality.

North Korea is annoying in other ways. It counterfeits our money and many of our prominent commercial products. It commits human rights violations against its own population. It continually roils the peace in its region. But to act like it is a reason to totally reorient our defense plans, conduct special exercises, and move missile interceptors and carrier battle groups at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars is ludicrous. We need to pay attention to North Korea as we do any other troublemaker, but let's try to keep the situation in perspective rather than allow it to become the next excuse to squander unneeded billions in defense expenditures.