North Korea has the advantage of being predictably unpredictable. If the Korean peninsula has gone without a crisis for a few weeks, expect Pyongyang to create one. So it is with the advent of the Obama administration.
The North has declared that all agreements with South Korea are inoperative and apparently is preparing to stage a missile test. The government in Seoul has responded with a yawn, but Philip Zelikow, State Department Counselor under Condoleezza Rice, has become much more excited. He suggests war on the Foreign Policy blog:
Our warning would be that, if you stand up the missile (itself a plain violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718), the United States will take it down. The North Korean perfection of a long-range nuclear missile capability against the United States, Japan, or the Republic of Korea would pose an imminent threat to the vital interests of our country.
Obviously no one wants the North to possess either nuclear weapons or missiles of any sort. But nothing in the regime’s behavior suggests that Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is suicidal. And any attack on America would be suicidal.
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Moreover, if there is insanity at work on the Korean peninsula, it is the assumption that Kim would do nothing if his nation was attacked by the U.S. In fact, retaliation would be easy, since the South’s capital lies within easy range of Scud missiles and massed artillery. Even the “optimists” who believe that Seoul can be protected talk about holding casualties under 100,000.
In dealing with the North it is worth remembering America’s experience with China. In the mid-1960s the unstable Mao regime, atop a country convulsed in the bloody Cultural Revolution, was developing nuclear weapons. The Johnson administration rejected proposals for a preventive attack. It’s impossible to know what the world would have looked like had Washington struck, but China almost certainly would have moved closer to the Soviet Union and been far more resolutely hostile to the U.S. Looking back restraint looks like the better part of valor. So, too, with North Korea today.
Washington’s best strategy would be to withdraw its 29,000 troops from the Republic of Korea, which is well able to defend itself and where they are vulnerable to attack. That would make North Korea primarily a problem for the ROK, China, and Japan. And the U.S. could focus on genuine threats to American security elsewhere.
-- Doug Bandow
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