The United States and its allies face nuclear weapons challenges in both North Korea and Iran. North Korea is the most immediate problem and the one with the shorter fuse. Iran is a longer term problem but the fuse is lit in a more volatile region. And the outcome of the current Korean crisis may have a decisive impact on the resolution of the Iranian imbroglio.
The new young leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, is following the playbook of his father, Kim Jon Il. First you manufacture a crisis, be it an incident in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or sinking a South Korean naval vessel. This triggers a diplomatic response in the United Nations, perhaps more ineffective sanctions and no retaliation. There are calls to talk with Kim and engage in some, usually fruitless negotiations. If a deal is reached that provides food or energy aid, it falls apart before full implementation and after a pause, the cycle repeats itself.
But this time it may be different. With rudimentary nuclear and missile programs in progress, Kim Jong Un is being extremely aggressive. He has uttered the most inflammatory words in this long-running drama, threatening nuclear missile attacks on America, South Korea and Japan, and declaring the 1953 armistice over. But he has also taken serious concrete steps including reopening the Younbyon nuclear complex, cutting the two military hotlines connecting the north and south and stopping South Korean managers from entering the Kaesong industrial complex on the border. We can expect a new nuclear test or missile launch soon.
There are voices calling for Charlie Brown to give Lucy one more chance and go for the kick. For the U.S. to reward North Korea's dangerous behavior with talks or concessions would be a serious mistake. Our ally in South Korea has a president determined not to let a provocation go unanswered. Joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea are about to wrap up and two Aegis ships with anti-missile capability are now off the coast. If we do not stand up to him now, when we are in a strong position and he has grossly overstated his missile and nuclear capability, when will we?
There is another reason for the U.S. and its allies to stand strong: Iran. North Korea has withdrawn from the Non-pProliferation Treaty (NPT), expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, violated U.N. resolutions on missile tests and produced at least rudimentary nuclear weapons. If North Korea continues on this path with impunity and perhaps gets some sanctions lifted or aid promised, what kind of message does that send to Iran? They have not abrogated the NPT and still allow some, insufficient, IAEA inspections. And they claim to be interested only in enrichment for peaceful purposes. As the next round of negotiations are about to begin, Iran is sure to be watching events in Korea. After all, both nations were customers of AQ Khan and reportedly exchanged data on missile and nuclear weapons technology. If North Korea gets concessions or carries out provocations without retaliation, Iran will rightly or wrongly draw conclusions about American steadfastness.
On its own merits, North Korea must be confronted and its nuclear and missile programs dismantled. This must be made crystal clear to Kin Jong Un. His bluster should not be rewarded. Better it be ignored. But if he takes hostile action a strong response is essential. Should he fire a missile at anyone, his missile test range should be destroyed. Absent shelling Seoul or invading the South, an attack on his nuclear facilities risking fallout on the neighbors should be avoided.
That being said, a behind the scenes wink promising talks after he backs down and reverses the Younbyon and hotline decisions may be advisable. It is best to give a cornered enemy a way out, as the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated. Similarly, Iran should be given a face saving way to satisfy their enrichment needs and meet their IAEA and NPT obligations. We do not want them to go the way of North Korea. We do not want to have a short fuse in the Persian Gulf. How we handle North Korea may well determine if we can find a peaceful solution for Iran.