North Korea’s Nuclear Bravado v. the U.S.’s Newfound Hesitation
I am watching the news and wondering when everyone went to sleep? Is anyone else wondering the same thing?
Why are we allowing North Korea to have nuclear weapons and at the same time act aggressively? I understand that if we respond aggressively, they might start a war, but since when is that an impediment? We started a war in Afghanistan because they attacked us with our own planes. We started a war in Iraq because they were belligerent and might have had dangerous weapons technology. Both of those situations might have been handled differently, but why isn’t it worth standing up to North Korea? I can’t imagine the logic.
If allowing North Korea or Iran to “go nuclear” leads in the long run to nuclear weapons proliferation among people who do irresponsible things and then hide behind their nuclear weapons, or worse, the use of a nuclear weapon by an individual not associated with a state for whom deterrence isn’t important, what could be worse? What path are we on? North Korea sinks a South Korean ship and attacks a few South Korean civilian homes. No response?
We should be reticent to force regime change on another country, but are we confused that we could not attack their nuclear capability, their military, their government, if we wanted to? Should we at least draw a line that says, “if you kill more than a thousand civilians, we have to stop you” or “if you demand a change in foreign policy based on your nuclear capability, we have to destroy that capability?”
It’s not so much that the recent incident in North Korea is crucial in itself. But it sends the signal to everyone who ever wanted power, that if you can get your hands on some plutonium, you can really throw your weight around. Moreover, we are at only one moment in this evolution, we have a whole future ahead of us facing the prospect of a nuclear North Korea selling or trading weapons to others. In fact, for North Korea, it would seem that a destablizing attack by a third party on the United States would strengthen the North’s standing in the world, so long as it couldn’t be directly blamed on North Korea so as to justify retaliation.
Although I have not been against the war in Afghanistan — other than it should only have been fought from a plane to punish perpetrators of 9/11, rather than on the ground with the dream of building a modern country — or the war in Iraq — though I was never convinced by the articulation of reasons or the simplistic approach to remaking Iraqi society — I don’t understand how anyone could think that either of those efforts were in the same league in importance compared to curbing the avowed development of nuclear weapons among small belligerent states.
What bothers me is that I am not even reading in the news any consideration of a serious response to either North Korean actions or nuclear proliferation. It seems that the discomfort of standing up and risking another war has become so high that it is off the table. The alternative, a future cataclysm, that we can’t quite predict and that might still be twenty-five years off or might never occur, offers false comfort. Experts on NewsHour are saying there isn’t much we can do. I understand that President Obama has taken the position during his presidency that North Korean stunts should not be elevated in political importance by receiving a presidential response. This make some sense as a political posture, but at some point, the only appropriate response to a military attack is a serious response.
Unlike in Afghanistan, where a great deal of costly response has achieved very little, the United States needs to find ways for a little response to achieve a great deal. If anything needs to be rethought by the Defence department and civilian leaders, this is it.
The real lesson of 9/11 was to access risk with some imagination. The risk here is that someone or some group will find it advantageous to use a nuclear weapon on a major metropolitan area, whether New York, Moscow, London or Mumbai — that in the subsequent international instability and economic distress, their position would be improved. There are many interests whom are disadvantaged in the current world order, and it is impossible to predict the path connecting nuclear technology and radical political designs.
While the President cannot eliminate all threats to the United States or its allies, the conclusion drawn from a period of ineffective or at least inefficient military campaigns cannot be to take confrontation, including military action, off the table. The United States must think smart about where the greatest risks lay, and take action now to achieve the most effective containment of those risks. History will not wait for us to get it right.
Marc Seltzer is also a contributor to SupremePodcast.com, a weekly U.S. Supreme Court case review podcast. A complete collection of all Marc Seltzer’s writing and podcasts is available at marcseltzer.com.