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The North Korean Irritant
by Brian S. Wise
03 January 2003 

Why Iraq is still a more immediate threat, and why dictators are like five-year-olds.

Imagine you’re a columnist of voluminous and frequently voiced opinion. Now imagine that, due to a previously scheduled vacation, you’re forced to sit idly by for two weeks, watching the North Korean story unfold, having no outlet through which you can express your irritation. And why are you irritated? Because it seems as though way too many people of otherwise stable intellect have selectively forgotten everything they have ever learned about madmen and their dictatorships. In forgetting they can fret, loudly, about the circumstances surrounding North Korea, and criticize the Bush administration’s foreign policies, loudly.

We concede that the idea (note: the idea) of threat is greater coming from North Korea than Iraq, because North Korea has The Bomb; so why is the United States so willing to invade Iraq and so unwilling to invade North Korea? A valid question, and easily answered, which is why the administration’s bigger cheerleaders are remiss in not saying so: North Korea hasn’t, let’s say, spent most of the last 20 years invading and / or attacking its enemies – think here of Kuwait, which Iraq invaded because it believed Kuwait to be its own land, just unfortunately misnamed. North Korea hasn’t spent the last decade defying a dozen or so United Nations sanctions, slaughtering its own people, shooting at American planes patrolling the no fly zone, so on and so forth. Iraq poses a stronger immediate threat because it’s earned the honor; North Korea wants things given to them, and is acting in ways it thinks will help.

But North Korea does have The Bomb, and must be dealt with. How? First by calling North Korea what it is, a dictatorship, and then treating it as it should be treated. Dictators are like five-year-olds: there is only so long you can comfortably appease them before they become spoiled and want something they’re not supposed to have; or worse, react badly when something is rightfully taken away from them as punishment. In North Korea’s case, those things include the money and fuel provided the dictatorship following 1994’s appeasement, brokered by former president Carter and approved by the previous administration. (You’ll recall those things weren’t taken away arbitrarily; the North Koreans were caught red-handed manufacturing weapons, and were appropriately reprimanded.)

North Korea can be dealt with diplomatically, at least currently, because the threat it poses with its nuclear weapons is distant. With Iraq the accurate perception is that, based on nothing more than its recent movements, The Bomb (if possessed) would be used to settle whatever scores Hussein’s illness-riddled mind could manage. With North Korea, the accurate impression is, as mentioned, of a five-year-old being told “no” for the first time, and knowing of no other way to react than to reactivate plants, kick out inspectors, remove United Nations surveillance cameras, posture mightily so that the world may know of its perceived might, et cetera.

The matter of why the United States – with China, Japan and South Korea as border nations – feels it so necessary to spearhead the diplomatic effort is simple enough: we got the world into this fine mess, and are compelled to get the world out of it. Besides, we’re best qualified for the job; the border nations are a ragtag bunch, at best. One questions China’s diplomatic touch, given its propensity for running over protestors with tanks and holding wayward Americans hostage on its air fields. Japan provides no ultimate military option should worse come to worse, given its post-war constitution, and at best could only provide some detailed photographs of what could happen if North Korea does something foolish. South Korea is, well, South Korea. Left to their own devices, it’s doubtful those three nations would be able to handle the North Korean matter with the sort of touch necessary when you deal with dictatorships, and want to win (the distinction being that when the previous administration dealt with North Korea in 1994, after it threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, it was to pacify, not do what was right).

That means no further appeasement. Acknowledging that a kind touch is necessary varies greatly from capitulating. Nuclear weapons aren’t in North Korea’s best interest; as a whole, the sovereignty of the nation, such as it is, remains unchallenged by neighbors or other foreign powers whenever they hold a peaceful course, despite their regime. On the same point, it’s also not in North Korea’s best interests to continue on its current course, because if left alone to advance, it could come to be that North Korea becomes the next Iraq, and then things will fully be beyond its control, and into ours. Dictators want power above everything else, and if finally forced with the option of nuclear power or administrative power, one should be confident North Korea will realize it cannot win the nuclear question, and will relent.

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