Contemplating the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran - from the standpoint of US foreign policy - there are two indisputable facts that set the stage: One, it is official and oft-stated US policy that Iran will not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons capability; and, two, that North Korea's status as a nuclear-armed state must be reversed. In fact, the North Korean situation was quite similar to Iran's now, during the presidency of George W. Bush, who stated that a nuclear North Korea was "intolerable." (When I went to graduate school in international relations, "intolerable" had a specific, unambiguous diplomatic interpretation, viz, "We will go to war to prevent this.") Well, guess what? Not only did North Korea acquire nuclear weapons, it now has tested intercontinental ballistic missiles - both in spite of strongly worded threats and sanctions from the United States and the United Nations. And this has been going on for almost two decades. Where does it end?
As Henry Kissinger said, the cardinal challenge for statesmen is to recognize "a change in the international environment so likely to undermine national security that it must be resisted no matter what form the threat takes or how ostensibly legitimate it appears." It's high time we really say what we mean and mean what we say. We cannot kick this can down the road any longer.
The current sentiment that we'll just ignore (but not reward) the spoon banging on the highchair by Kim Jong-un doesn't get us anywhere. It's still appeasement of a brutal, little dictator, who is trying to consolidate his power by threats against South Korea and the United States. But the better analogy is that the toddler has grabbed, not a spoon, but a loaded pistol that was hanging from daddy's holster and was banging that on the highchair. No parent would ignore that! But imagine--this little popinjay has threatened the United States with a nuclear attack. Imagine! We must take this threat seriously since he does have an arsenal, albeit small and primitive, of nuclear bombs. What are we thinking?
The common wisdom among the foreign policy elite, and apparently the Obama Administration, is that we should wait for the situation to defuse itself. And the recent agreement between South Korea and the United States that we should have a proportionate, measured response is strategically inane. Why would we want to advertise the worst that could happen rather than "keep all options on the table?" And why would we want to defuse Kim's rhetoric or actions? He has China extraordinarily angry, and we have moved offensive and defensive systems into place around the Korean peninsula. This is our most propitious time to smack the world's newest little tyrant and his goose-stepping army. German historians tell us that if Western Powers had opposed Hitler's occupying the Rhineland, he would have cut and run and maybe World War II would have been avoided. Similarly here, we should welcome a provocation from the North so we can deliver a substantially disproportionate response so the gray generals who control the North Korean army will see what Kim Jong-un has gotten them into. Nothing could further our interests better than if this arrogant arriviste be toppled by his own military, by people who know what power the United States can wield and who - if sane - would not want to go up against us. And forty percent of the standing North Korean army has recently returned to the fields to cultivate their crops yet agricultural production will be down again this year, more than the 6% it was down in 2012.
China must realize a couple of things: The continuation of this anachronistic Stalinist state on its eastern border is not a tenable situation for much longer. They also must realize that the same solution that worked for the repressive East German state by being absorbed into West Germany will probably work here when the North Korean state is brought down. There is a parallel nationalism uniting the Koreas like the Germanys. Unless China actively promotes this process, they will have to deal with a horrendous refugee problem in their far east. Remember the bugbear of the Soviets for decades was that a reunified Germany was a threat to world peace and a dagger pointed at their cold Soviet hearts. Neither turned out to be the case and the unification of the two Germanys was peaceful, progressive and enormously economically stimulating. The United States should assure China that as soon as the Koreas are united under a peaceful, neutral South Korean-dominated regime, we will withdraw our troops from the Korean peninsula, lowering the Chinese xenophobic fear of encirclement. Japan needs to be brought as a partner into this process and in exchange for China's help in unifying the Koreas, Japan gives up these useless uninhabited Senkaku islands (Diaoyu to China) that are such a risible jingoistic flash point between their two nations. (Remember Quemoy and Matsu - whatever happened to them? Also, the US quietly removed its offensive missiles from Turkey, a NATO ally, in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis - the undeclared quid-pro-quo.). If the nuclear threat from North Korea is not eliminated, Japan will soon go nuclear itself, which China absolutely could not abide.
There is little hope for peaceful regime change. North Korea doesn't have, to the best knowledge of Western intelligence, any semblance of an opposition movement - largely due to the "three generation policy" of punishment of dissenters - in place for 65 years since his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong-un is the third generation of this merciless Communist hereditary kleptocracy.
The rear-view mirror approach the United States has toward thinking about nuclear proliferation is rooted in the Cold War metaphor of MAD (mutually assured destruction). All the scenarios about "launch-on-warning," "second strike capability," the "Triad," "hardened missile silos," "MIRVs," silent, prowling nuclear-armed submarines, etc. are quite irrelevant to terrorist states acquiring nuclear weapons. And it is really quite insane of us to think that these states will give up their nuclear ambitions. No nuclear-armed state has ever given up its arsenal voluntarily. Only three states ever voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons development programs, viz. South Africa, Argentina and Libya - and none were anywhere close to actually having nuclear weapons. No country with real enemies, viz. India and Pakistan, has ever given up its nuclear weapons. Iraq's and Syria's nuclear ambitions were destroyed by Israeli air strikes.
So does any serious person doubt that Iran is hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons and that North Korea is hell-bent on keeping theirs? Hence, we need to face the fact that if our rhetoric is not just rhetoric, we will have to go to war with these countries to deny them nuclear weapons. And if that is the conclusion of hard and brutal logical thinking, then why on earth would we want to yield the initiative to them and wait any longer? It contradicts all military doctrine and the sooner the better - before Iran has a weapon and before North Korea learns how to miniaturize its warheads and extend the range of its ICBMs. So what if Secretary of State Kerry - after several more months - gets to waive some piece of paper from Kim Jong-un...well, you get the metaphor. Been there done that...multiple times. Of course, the policy-making elite will shudder that these opinions are war mongering. But the Mother of all War Mongers has been North Korea, followed closely by Iran.