The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.
– Albert Einstein
Einstein was, of course, referring to the pre-existing problem of nations willing to use war as a means of addressing political problems, but the sentiment applies to the North Korean crisis presently upon us. The nuclear test did not create the problem that is North Korea; it mere created the urgency to deal with that problem.
To be sure, North Korea’s recent brinkmanship raises the stakes in an already expensive global game. Whether or not they truly succeeded in testing a nuclear device, they are clearly moving in that direction unabated. The latest threat (to launch a nuclear-tipped missile), while absurd on its face, focuses the need for the coalition now negotiating with NoKo to define steps and clear consequences in the likely event of Kim Jong-il’s continued intransigence. The fact that China, long NoKo’s protector in international relations (much like a more mature older brother protecting a younger sibling), is increasingly growing tired of Kim Jong-il’s antics is a good sign that the entire affair will not play out as America versus the World. But what are the viable options?
Continued Multi-Lateral Diplomacy
Obviously we could stay the course (to coin a phrase), but that has done little to nothing to stave off NoKo’s (NuKo’s?) nuclear ambitions and constant antagonism. Furthermore, even if such diplomacy successfully impedes the march of the Pyong-Yang-uin, long enough to at least put reliable defenses into place, the problem of a self-immolating nation will still exist. In a large part, North Korea’s (inevitable) collapse is what China fears most, and the threat of a steady stream of refugees across its border, creating a humanitarian crises that China is ill-equipped to handle. Multi-lateral diplomacy may indeed delay the problem, but it won’t solve it. In short, it is a necessary and useful tool for maintaining the status quo while developing the ultimate solution to the problem.
In fact, such is not a viable option. We already tried it and it failed miserably. If we were to give in to such a demand, we will clearly signal to Kim Jong-il that we can be blackmailed into trading whatever he demands for his promise not use military options. Moreover, we have no way of verifying that NoKo is keeping it’s side of the bargain. Just like it would be a bad idea to negotiate with bin Laden, it makes no sense to give Kim Jong-il the impression that we would submit to his whims. It would rather be like paying danegeld to Ethelred.
Should we advocate giving Kim Jong-il a time-out? His juvenile behavior certainly merits several, but I have grave doubts about the effectiveness of such a manouever, much less the ability to make it happen. Like any monopoly or cartel, it always seems that somebody cheats. Surely Venezuela or Iran will continue to find North Korea an attractive trading partner as a means of twisting the thorn in our side. And if we were to put an impenetrable blockade in place, letting nothing get in or out of NoKo, I expect that the fear of a refugee torrent would eventually open lines of trading through China. Nevertheless, this is another tool that probably should be used (the current proposal to restrict militray and luxury goods does sound promising), and may have the effect of precipitating North Korea’s inevitable collapse. Again, that will not solve the problem.
This option would solve one problem (and maybe two), but it would create far more. In addition to that nagging refugee problem, a military strike against NoKo without international agreement and participation (which is not coming anytime soon), would create a horrible backlash against America. The closest analogue that I can summon is the War of the Spanish Succession, being somewhat global in nature and lasting a decade, and the resultant Treaty of Utrecht that cemented the term “balance of power” into history’s lexicon. Wrong or right, much of the world is wary of American force and our ability to insert our military anywhere around the globe almost at will.
In addition, even if the recent nuclear test was nothing more than a hoax and Kim Jong-il has little more than conventional short-range rockets at his disposal, such weapons would be effective against Seoul in the very least, and could wreak serious havoc on the Korean penisula.
Leave Up It To The United Nations
Okay, stop laughing. Seriously, just stop.
There are no good choices. Continued multi-lateral negotiations are a must, if only to keep the regional powers in play. Sanctions will do little good, but they too are a necessary tool. Stringing out the macabre dance towards certain war in the hopes that North Korea collapses before it can develop efficient nuclear capability seems to the be the only plan for the moment, and indeed, it may be the only choice.
If Kim Jong-il does actually have one or more nuclear weapons that are capable of being delivered to their intended target(s), then we are in the endgame. It is only a question of who moves first. Jong-il would, of course, have to convince us in some way that he actually does have nuclear capability, and that such capability could be used against us (or an ally). Once he does, I don’t see how we avoid all out war.
If instead, as I suspect, he is bluffing, the dance shall continue until the weapons capability is developed or the country falls. Neither scenario is very rosy, but the band will play on …
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