Treat North Korea Like Other Nuclear-Armed Adversaries

Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, RUSU 2315 5, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, RUSU 2315 5, Hoover Institution Archives.

The backward tyranny of North Korea has again conducted a nuclear test and fired a ballistic missile. This has garnered global attention, including much discussion of what should be done in response.

In determining that response, three historical parallels merit mention. First, in 1957, only a few years after Stalin had died, America was united in its determination to win the Cold War. Then to everyone’s surprise, the Soviet Union launched into orbit the world’s first satellite, Sputnik. This provoked widespread public consternation and concern about a “missile gap.” Was Russia now the dominant technological power, trumpeting its missiles in order to bully the U.S.? In response, President Eisenhower met publicly with our nation’s preeminent scientists and instituted some modest changes. In his press conference of October 9, he stressed American nuclear superiority: “the ICBM(s) are still going ahead—those projects—on the top priority within the Government, incidentally a priority which was never accorded to the satellite program.” In essence, while he acknowledged the reality of the Russian achievement, Eisenhower stressed that we would overmatch it.

The second case is the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis—the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War. President Kennedy did deftly persuade Soviet leader Khrushchev to withdraw the Russian short-range missiles and tactical nuclear warheads from Cuba. In exchange, Kennedy withdrew our tactical nuclear Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Conversely, in dealing with North Korea, we absolutely do not want any such exchange. Both China and North Korea would be delighted if we made the mistake of negotiating any withdrawal of our forces in exchange for any nuclear or missile adjustments by Pyongyang.

The third case is the Chinese test of its first nuclear weapon on October 16, 1964. President Johnson immediately responded: “This explosion comes as no surprise to the United States Government. …the free world nuclear strength will continue, of course, to be enormously greater. The United States reaffirms its defense commitments in Asia.” As was true of Eisenhower a decade earlier, Johnson addressed the issue in a low-key manner.

Sputnik, the missile gap, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and China’s nuclear entry were major historical events that received enormous publicity. In the Cuban crisis, both we and the Soviets gave ground in where we stationed our nuclear missiles, but neither side gave up any weapons. In every one of three instances, the White House did not vow to roll back what our adversaries had already developed. Extracting the scientific knowledge and the materials from Russia or China was an impossible task. Instead, we focused upon building up our own military capabilities and insuring our continued solidarity with our allies.

Evil is not irrational. The regime in North Korea has maintained its tyrannical rule for seven decades. Thousands of its elite—engineers and generals alike—have shown the intelligence to manage international criminal networks, hack massively into corporations such as Sony, and produce the world’s most lethal weapons. That they all would join in a massive suicide attack against America or its allies is doubtful in the extreme.

Nonetheless, that regime must be undermined and delegitimized. Its nuclear advances and feral mentality create ripples of instability across Asia. By launching a missile across Japan’s landmass, it has provoked the Japanese people, with long-term unpredictable consequences. And as Japan increases its military defenses, China will feel threatened. Yet China props up North Korea as a buffer state, useful in warding off the heretical democratic principles embodied in South Korea. Therefore, severe and continuous financial penalties should be levied against those prominent Chinese corporations who trade with North Korea.

But as in our geopolitical confrontations with China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, we should not expect results that include the removal of the nuclear weapons and missiles now in North Korea. Do not unilaterally set goals that cannot be achieved. South Korea and Japan must both speak out forcefully and join fully in their own defense, while we take a lower public profile. When there is no satisfactory solution, do not over-emphasize the problem.