Thursday, June 18, 2009

How Should the U.S. Deal With North Korea?

Analysts think that North Korea will fire a ballistic missile toward Hawaii in a couple of weeks, reports the AP. Although the missile wouldn’t be able to reach Hawaii’s main islands and the firing is labeled a test, this would clearly be an act of international aggression, aimed at poking Japan, the U.S., and their allies in the eye.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is quoted as saying something that comes across as rather ridiculous. “If we acknowledge North Korea possessing nuclear programs, other non-nuclear countries in Northeast Asia would be tempted to possess nuclear weapons and this would not be helpful for stability in Northeast Asia,” said Lee.

So, if South Korea officially admits what everybody in the world already knows to be true — that North Korea has nuclear weapon capacities — every other country in the region will also want nuclear weapons. But presumably, as long as South Korea refuses to officially acknowledge NK’s nuclear capabilities other countries in the region will refrain from pursuing nuclear weapons. It is difficult to see how this makes much sense.

It seems to me that few Americans are itching for war with the testy North Korean communists. Any war with NK would end up being either direct or indirect war with China and Russia. Nobody wants that. Besides, the last Korean War killed 36,940 Americans and wounded 92,134 more, while more than 15,000 went missing or ended up as POWs. Internationally, the war left hundreds of thousands dead and millions wounded. Nobody wants a repeat of that. But the question arises as to how the U.S. should deal with NK’s hostile actions.

Despite what some suggest, simply minding our own business would not make the threat go away. Most Americans seem at least somewhat favorable (even if uncomfortably so) to diplomacy efforts that involve China and Russia. It is no secret that NK is a vassal state of China and also of Russia to a certain degree.

China alone could bring North Korea to heel at the snap of its fingers, so to speak. China obviously has its reasons for not doing so. The game of gaining concessions from the West and distracting the West from China’s own ambitions can probably be played for a long time before it becomes too dangerous. Russia is not as tightly tied into the situation as is China, but it has enough skin in the game to play along as well.

We have a long history of providing direct aid to North Korea in exchange for less hostile activity. We have provided the aid, but NK has done little to actually comply with the provisions of the agreements, although, they’ve occasionally made a show of doing so. This begs the question of why we should bother to pursue additional worthless agreements.

Although the missile NK plans to fire next month would not reach the main Hawaiian Islands, it would apparently reach the outer islands. Americans could perhaps be excused for calling to mind the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The AP article also states that “Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it would take at least three to five years for North Korea to pose a real threat to the U.S. west coast.” The Korean War never actually threatened the U.S. homeland, so NK’s current aggression is qualitatively different.

Should the U.S. sit idly by while a rogue nation demonstrates its ability to drop missiles on the U.S. and prepares missiles that could strike the U.S. mainland? Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that missile defense systems are in place in Hawaii. Using our anti-ballistic missiles would not be without risk. There are concerns that the program is not quite ready for prime time. National and international regard for the program would diminish if we missed. But a successful strike would provide critical program information to NK, China, Russia, and others, allowing them to work on developing weapons that could outmaneuver our anti-missile missiles.

NK’s missile firing would only be the latest in a recent spate of aggressive actions by the communist nation that routinely has difficulty feeding its people. Some analysts think the purpose of this activity is to bolster the image of NK’s 68-year-old dictator, Kim Jong-il, who has appeared somewhat weak recently due to illness. Others suggest that it is a setup to bolster the dictator’s son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un, who supposedly oversees these programs. Using this latter angle, some have suggested that this is a temporary flare up that will subside once the leadership transition is cemented, so that the U.S. should take a somewhat passive position until it all blows over.

It seems clear that taking a live and let live posture in relation to NK will not achieve acceptable national or international security. Diplomatic efforts seem to be very nearly worthless. Limited military anti-missile involvement has its risks. Direct war with NK is unthinkable for most Americans. Are there other options that would be feasible, morally acceptable, and have some prospect of being effective?

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