North Korea: A looming threat

Armstrong Williams | 8/26/2009, 4:39 a.m.

North Korea: A looming threat

The U.S. is threatened with a number of challenging military situations: Iran’s recalcitrant regime; a muted but not defeated Hamas; an increasingly hot war in Afghanistan; and, of course, the North Koreans. And though style has certainly changed in the Obama administration, the substance of policy often has not.

In the hardest case, North Korea, the alternatives are shockingly constant: confrontation or capitulation. They may be dressed up in talks or in “humanitarian gestures” — everyone who believes that former President Clinton’s actions, noble though they may be, were not drenched in symbolism and thereby “political,” raise your hand — but there is an unerring constant. Either we will stand up to an aggressive, repressive, brutal regime, or we will negotiate and capitulate, at least partly, to its demands.

Kim Jong Il is well aware of the current state of our nation. He understands that we are spread frightfully thin, that our social policy appears to be transforming and that we are facing the greatest recession since the Great Depression. And we have a president who seeks to court leaders around the world, regardless of their willingness to unleash fear, terror and chaos among their people.

On top of that, the North Korean leader has always been an eccentric character who delights in attention. If there were any time to make a bold move against the U.S., it would be now. After all, he’s not going to live forever.

Though the parallel isn’t exact, the North Korea situation bears some similarity to another nuclear threat from a brutal regime helmed by an enigmatic leader. This one came in October 1962.

Nikita Khrushchev had bullied John F. Kennedy at their earlier summit, and needed to advance the Soviet standing in the world after an inconclusive Berlin crisis and the humiliation of having the U.S. attack them at the Bay of Pigs. Khrushchev acted from weakness. He knew all about the missile gap with which Kennedy had hammered the Republicans during the presidential campaign, and he knew it was heavily in America’s favor. That, together with missile bases that surrounded Soviet territory, gave the U.S. a decided nuclear advantage.

Today, the U.S. possesses several similarly key advantages, including ever more effective missile defenses and advanced military technology. North Korea is surrounded by the seas, a U.S. preserve. Just over its borders and a short distance across those seas are South Korea and Japan, countries much richer and more populous than North Korea — and also major U.S. allies.

Against this, the North Koreans can only rage and brandish the only weapon that could confer asymmetric advantage: a nuclear weapon, preferably one tied to an intermediate- or intercontinental-range missile.

The lesson of recent history — Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, as well as the nuclear agreements with India — is that only a nuclear capability suffices to immunize a country from U.S. attack. It may even, in the case of India, justify special treatment. This is what the North Koreans covet.