The danger of despots gone nuclear

North Korea, the world’s last Stalinist state, goads the world closer to confrontation with each passing day. On Saturday, it threatened new tests of ballistic missiles – the delivery system it would use if it attacks South Korea or Japan – unless the United States caves to its demands. The next day, Pyongyang, in a risibly Orwellian claim, contended that, contrary to what it had told the world since October, it had never admitted to a nuclear weapons program; that it was all an American ruse, and moreover, that the United States would face a “sea of fire” should it oppose North Korea’s dictates.

Such is the state of affairs in the Worker’s Paradise north of the 38th parallel. And paradise it is, if your “work,” like Kim Jong Il’s, consists of starving your own people, building a massive military machine to threaten your peaceful neighbors and repeatedly failing to meet treaty obligations. North Korea is one of the worst states in the world, if you judge by the numbers: approximately two million North Koreans have starved to death in the last decade, while the government devotes around 30 percent of its Gross Domestic Product to military spending (the United States, with the biggest defense budget in the Western world, spends roughly 4%). And, last October, Kim’s regime admitted that, in violation of an agreement made in 1994 with the Clinton Administration, it had once more begun work on nuclear weapons. Even the most anti-American of Williams students will find it hard to make an argument for U.S.–North Korean moral equivalence (though I’m sure it will be done if the crisis grows any worse).

The question, then, is what to do about the growing madness north of the DMZ. The options are almost universally bad. There is the choice of military action, but it’s not a very palatable one: the North, despite the crushing burden of its self-inflicted economic problems, has managed to keep a huge standing army poised to re-invade the South; such an invasion should never be thought an entirely remote possibility. After all, it was with no provocation and no warning that Kim’s father attacked his southern neighbor in the summer of 1950. And, should a war come, it would be a disastrous one. Even as you read this, North Korean artillery is aimed at Seoul, able to destroy the Korean peninsula’s biggest metropolis at the whim of a despot. More frightening, North Korea now probably possesses one or two simple nuclear weapons – enough to annihilate millions of Koreans, as well as the 37,000 American troops presently guarding the South.

Then again, there is also the choice of sanctions – but what good can they do in a country already gone insane with hunger, fear and cold? The Bush administration, understandably flustered by the unexpected onset of the crisis last fall, chose to cut off fuel oil shipments to the North. This makes sense, to some degree – after all, Pyongyang can’t be allowed to think that its actions have no consequences – but in the end, the sanctions will probably hurt the already suffering people of North Korea, not the regime which brutalizes them.

So that leaves us with negotiation, the tack taken by Clinton in 1994. It is, like the other options, an unpleasant one. The lesson Munich taught, that appeasement only leads to more aggression, looms large; and the administration is rightfully loath to reward bad North Korean behavior.

Thus, there is really no clear way out of this escalating crisis. Hopefully, the Russians or the Chinese can be prevailed upon to reason with the North Koreans, but this may be a pipe dream. Neither power has shown any inclination to responsible world leadership, and there is no reason to expect it now.

If there is any kind of silver lining in the situation in Northeast Asia, it is that the escalating crisis proves instructive to the debate on Iraq. For me, Kim’s acquisition of nuclear weapons proves just how dangerous and unpleasant it is to have to deal with an aggressive despot gone nuclear. Imagine how much worse Saddam Hussein – a man responsible for attacking four neighbors since 1980 – might behave if given access to even the limited power currently in Pyongyang’s hands.

A nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein is clearly intolerable, not only because of his own record of brutality, repression and aggression, but also because he would exercise effective control over the world economy vis-à-vis his proximity to the vast oil fields of the Middle East (this oil largely goes, incidentally, to Europe and Japan. America only gets about 25 percent of its oil from Mid-Eastern sources). As Thomas Friedman recently argued, perhaps this (seemingly inevitable) war is, to an extent, about who controls the oil in the Middle East – but is it really so immoral to seek to deprive one of the worst tyrants of the age of the power to control the lifeblood of the industrial and post-industrial worlds? Of course not: indeed, to allow him to do so would be a dereliction of moral duty on the scale of Munich.

And, to remind us of this, there is always an atomically-armed Kim Jong Il, lurking in the background.