Friday, October 10, 2008

North Korea: Another Turn of the Screw

In the slowly spiralling Nuclear (Dis?)Armament struggle with North Korea, the road has once again forked.

How one looks at the situation, as ever, depends on how much optimism one can muster.

Kim Jong Il may have had a stroke. The North Koreans are possibly readying to launch as many as 10 test missiles (the most ever). They may be developing a warhead that can fit on one of those missiles. They have rejected the IAEA inspectors. But, on the bright side, we may be close to a new deal.

If the stakes weren't so high, it could be funny.

The traditional response to these kinds of actions from North Korea is to sigh and believe that blowing hot and cold is their way of maintaining some dignity in the face of what must eventually be a climbdown of ever more epic proportions. What this response fails to address is the steadily growing capability of North Korea to project its power. There was a time when we dare not invade North Korea because the Chinese and Soviets would retaliate. Then came a time when we dare not invade North Korea because they would reduce Seoul to a super-fund site within minutes. Now comes a moment when China and Russia seem unable or unwilling to influence them, Japan may be added to their list of hostage states, and America's ability to do anything in the region but make it unattractive to invade South Korea withers away into history.

Ironically, even if we were to somehow magically preemptively strike all the important targets in North Korea, twist the arm of the world's most ideologically blinded military into early submission, and persuade the people there that our troops had not come to rape and murder them, as they have been told their entire lives we are getting ready to do, the humanitarian crises would overwhelm us: with the aparatus of the state gone, there would be no easy way to feed tens of millions of starving people, many of whom would, under even a fantasy best-case scenario, be willing to resist aid operations to the death. South Korean society, even assuming that Seoul had not been turned into a pile of burning tires, would be stressed to the breaking point.

Let's see how that new deal works.

Here's a prediction: The North Koreans continue to fan dance with diplomacy and inspections until they have tested a missile and warhead that can reach Tokyo, then they ask for all sanctions to be lifted. The ball is then in Japan's court, and who knows how the wind will be blowing by then? If things come to a head a heart beat or two before North Korea develops this capability, then it's high noon . . .

(thanks to MSNBC for the image)