The news that North Korea has nuclear weapons (“At least two” — unnamed senior administration official, “A small number” — Donald Rumsfeld) brings up a question that has been hanging over the world for some decades, and to which our current Iraq policy is relevant. The question is: What do we do about nutso states getting nukes?
The question first became acute in the early 1960s, when Mao Tse-tung made clear his intention that communist China should be a nuclear power. In the period before China’s first nuclear explosion (which took place in October 1964), the Johnson administration considered a pre-emptive strike against Chinese nuclear facilities. Those facilities were clear on satellite photographs, well attested by intelligence sources, and far from any population centers. One well-placed Titan missile with a large thermonuclear warhead — no publicity, no announcements, no acknowledgment — could have ended communist China’s bid for nuclear status.
Johnson rejected the option. History may judge this to have been one of the great missed opportunities of all time. In the context of 1964, however, it made sense. Setting aside the moral resistance to a pre-emptive strike against a sovereign nation — even one whose government the U.S. did not recognize — the dominant strategic doctrine at the time was “balance of terror.” That doctrine seemed to work — it had been vindicated by the Cuban missile crisis of a few months previously. If the U.S. could stare down a major nuclear power like the U.S.S.R., there seemed no reason to worry about the emergence of a minor one, which was all China looked to be for the foreseeable future. In any case, the full craziness of the Mao regime was not apparent in 1964. The “land reform” massacres of the early 1950s, the “anti-rightist” purges of the late 1950s, and the policy-induced famines of 1959-62 were all within the familiar pattern of Leninist regime-consolidation. All had been prefigured by similar events in the early U.S.S.R. The true appalling lunacy of Maoism did not become clear until the Great Cultural Revolution started in 1966.
When it was clear, and as China advanced from nuclear to thermonuclear status, the issue of pre-emption arose again, this time among the decision-makers of Brezhnev’s U.S.S.R. In late 1969, a Soviet diplomat in Washington made discreet inquiries among officials of the Nixon administration as to what U.S. reaction might be to a Soviet nuclear strike against China. The responses were entirely negative — Nixon was already cooking up his opening to China — and the matter was dropped, Brezhnev apparently being unwilling to go ahead without U.S. support. The option was probably unrealistic at this point in any case, the Chinese having already manufactured a number of nukes and dispersed them around the country.
Twelve years later the next case of a crazy dictator aspiring to nuclear status came up. It was the world’s great good fortune that this one was an Arab, our pal Saddam Hussein, and that Israel was blessed with one of the crunchiest governments she, or any other nation, ever had. The leader of that government was Menachem Begin, a man who had survived both the Holocaust (in which most of his family were murdered, along with all but ten of the 30,000 Jews of his home town) and the Soviet camps, and who had no illusions about the amenability of dictators to sweet reason. In the words of one contemporary commentator:
Begin and a number of other Israeli leaders have been very effective in dealing with terrorists and tough in making military decisions because they, too, were once urban guerrillas operating from relatively weak military positions. They understood the bottom line on fights to the death: hit first with maximum strength. Those who hesitate may die. No present Western national leaders have had this hard experience or appear to share the street fighter mentality that might be required in a confrontation with a nuclear-armed and hostile radical regime.
Faced with evidence that the Iraqis planned to use the French-built Osirak reactor to produce nuclear-weapons material, Begin ordered the Israeli air force to destroy the facility, which they duly did.
The issue next arose in regard to Pakistan. Unfortunately, the critical years were those of the early 1980s, when Pakistan was seen, surely correctly, as indispensable to final victory in the Cold War against the U.S.S.R. In the interest of breaking the Soviet effort in Afghanistan, the United States turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear-weapons technology, and another nuclear-armed dictatorship came into being, along with the first “Islamic bomb.” Whether this was too high a price to pay for the collapse of the U.S.S.R. will be another bone for future historians to chew on.
There was certainly no such agonizing trade-off to consider when North Korea’s nuclear intentions became plain in the early 1990s. Nor was there any Menachem Begin-style leadership on hand in the U.S., the nation on whom the responsibility to do something or other about the situation most obviously fell.
Now, foreign policy is a deep and difficult subject, in which some kind of case can be made for almost any approach. I don’t think there is much doubt, however, that if you survey the last 50 years of so of America’s relations with the rest of the world, one ironclad rule emerges rather clearly: When critical dealings with ruthless and amoral dictators have to be conducted, you do not want soft-headed love-the-world liberals in charge of U.S. foreign policy. Two of the lowest points in those 50 years must surely have been, first, Jimmy Carter’s remark, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that: “The thing that disappointed me the most was that Leonid Brezhnev lied to me,” and second, Madleine Albright smiling and clapping in a Pyongyang stadium two years ago, while Kim Jong Il looked on in satisfaction, and a dance troupe on the field below performed a routine titled: “The Party’s Will is Our Will.”
As Albright’s demeanor showed all too well, the Clinton administration had responded to the threat of a North Korean nuclear program with a policy of straightforward appeasement. The message conveyed to the North Korean dictator was: We will give you anything you want, if you promise not to develop nukes. But you must promise — cross your heart and hope to die, stick a needle in your eye! Okay? The North Koreans could not see anything wrong with this proposal at all. They gleefully took delivery of the Danegeld, while going full steam ahead with their nuclear-weapons program in secret. The fruits of this policy became clear last week.
To be sure, it did not help that all the other nations of the region, Japan, South Korea, and China, were pushing for appeasement, too. In the case of China, the principal emotions were (a) a desire for a quiet life free of military complications while they got on with economic reform, plus (b) residual affection among the Communist Party elite for a “fraternal socialist” neighbor.
South Korean feelings were more complex. The dominant emotion was simple fear — fear very well justified, as any hot war on the Korean peninsula would kill untold numbers of them and destroy their hard-won prosperity. There was, and is, also a curious kind of racial solidarity in play. The Koreans have been called the Irish of Asia, and there is indeed something very Irish in the illusion, widespread in South Korea, that Koreans could mend things among themselves if only foreign meddlers and imperialists would butt out. The actual historical evidence, in Korea as well as in Ireland, is that if left to their own devices, the peoples concerned would cheerfully kill, cook and eat each other. This, however, is one of those truths only apparent to outsiders. The underlying desire for racial solidarity on the peninsula is one of the reasons for the high levels of anti-Americanism among young Koreans, visible during George W. Bush’s visit to the country last February, and confirmed in a recent BostonUniversity survey. A poll at the time of the Bush visit turned up sixty percent of South Koreans thinking that the president’s inclusion of North Korea in the “axis of evil” was inappropriate.
Japan has been no more supportive of a strong U.S. line against North Korea. Fear is also a factor here — remember that North Korea test-fired ballistic missiles over Japan in 1998 — but I think a much lesser one. The unhappy fact about post-1945 Japan is that the nation has proved extremely reluctant to think about foreign policy in any serious way at all. The issue of the abductees, currently absorbing the country’s attention, illustrates the pathology here.
At least 13 Japanese citizens were abducted, from Japan’s own territory, by North Korean agents in the late 1970s, and spirited off to Pyongyang to teach the Japanese language to North Korean spies. The circumstances of these abductions were heartbreaking — one young couple was snatched while taking an evening stroll along a beach. The subsequent fates of the abductees were also appalling. Eight of them died, under circumstances for which Pyongyang has provided deeply unconvincing explanations. (Two of the eight were said to have died in car crashes — this, in a country with no private automobiles!) The surviving five were recently allowed out on a visit to Japan, though their children were kept in North Korea as hostages.
The truth about these abductions had been pretty well known for years — two of the abductees managed to smuggle a letter out to their families in Japan. (These two were, it goes without saying, among those who later died in North Korea, along with their infant child. “Poisoned by a gas leak in their apartment,” say the North Koreans.) Yet Japan’s political classes had hushed it all up, for fear of damaging their various efforts at “normalization” with the Kim regime. The Japanese Socialist Party, the country’s second largest, has steadfastly denied even the existence of the abductees, and has been seriously embarrassed by the appearance of the five survivors. The cruelty and duplicity of North Korea is now plain for all Japanese to see. It is far from certain, though, that this will do anything to turn the Japanese people away from their addiction to wishful thinking about foreign policy.
We now have to hope that Kim Jong Il is sufficiently rational to be deterred from using his new toys, or from hiring them out to international trouble-makers for the money his regime desperately needs. The evidence we have about Kim’s personality does not do very much to fortify this hope. Having failed to act when we ought to have acted, though, hope is all we have.
And in the meantime there are the new nuclear aspirants, Iraq and Iran foremost among them. We probably still have time to take forthright action against these menaces, if we have the will and resolution to do so.
Among the nine nations currently known to have nuclear weapons, two — China and North Korea — are dictatorships, run by secretive cliques who do not consider popular consent to be a necessary component of any state policy. Neither can be depended on to pursue rational policies: North Korea’s policies are in fact irrational, while China’s conversion to rationality is recent, and may for all we know be temporary, having no constitutional or social-historical foundations. A third nuclear nation, Pakistan, has been alternating between a rough, corrupt style of consensual government and frank dictatorship for its entire existence, and is plagued by Islamic fundamentalism.
Three nuclear-armed rogue states are enough for one small planet; three missed opportunities are already three too many. It is time for the United States, with or without the assistance of other nations, to act against the spread of this menace. It is time to declare a new doctrine — the George W. Bush doctrine, you could call it — that there shall be no more nuclear dictatorships, and that this country will do whatever needs to be done, constrained only by public opinion here in the U.S., to put an end to the nuclear ambitions of despots, criminals, religious fanatics, and lunatics.