The conventional wisdom holds that North Korea is mostly bluster, the young dictator trying to solidify his power and distract his starving subjects, gaining negotiating leverage, and about the worst that might happen is the Crazy Aunt in the Asian Attic will have one of her periodic violent outbursts, deadly perhaps but contained. The "saber rattling" might be a sign of a troubled regime in Pyongyang. The United States will project a "show of force," along with a promise to deploy more missile interceptors (of dubious reliability) in the coming months and years. And the situation will cool down.
I'm not sure much of this is true.
David Kang and Victor Cha, writing in Foreign Affairs, are among the few to challenge the view that North Korea isn't that dangerous. A Stalinist state with one of the world's largest armies, and a capable one at that, attains nuclear weapons of a sort and launches a satellite — in other words, achieves at least the beginnings of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Then its leaders make it repeatedly clear they intend to attack South Korea, Japan, Guam and the continental United States. Just the same old-same old, sixty years after the armistice that ended the Korean War? Prepare to be surprised.
Remember the Gary Condit scandal circa 2001? All our trivialities of the moment will go that way if this sum of all fears materializes. Lately, I have been thinking of North Korea today as sharing some characteristics with the Serbia of 1914. Another little nation that brings on a great war. We're still living in the world made by Gavrilo Princip's gunshot in Sarajevo, which led to a cascade of violence that ended the first great era of globalization. Now, Dennis Rodman's "friend for life" and his high-hatted generals might bring on an infinitely more bloody new century.
I broke bread and downed martinis with a retired spook the other night and he laid out this scenario: North Korea (or Iran) doesn't need to miniaturize an A-bomb (or worse, a thermonuclear device) and put it on a missile. It can find a way to smuggle the device into a Japanese (or Israeli) or American port in a shipping container or other less elegant but still effective way of delivering the goods.
Forgive me if I geek out for a moment as the child of the Cold War. What do we do? Turn Pyongyang and the North's nuclear labs into ashtrays? Merely one Trident missile with multiple independent re-entry vehicle warheads from one Ohio-class submarine keeping station west of Hawaii could do the trick. And then what? Fight a new Korean War across a contaminated battlefield while, by the way, the North's surviving artillery lays waste to Seoul, one of the world's most populous cities? So far, so good, unless China steps in to protect North Korea and warns Washington that it will not tolerate any retaliation against its ally. Then things get really interesting. China has more warheads and probably more ICBMs than have been estimated (around 20 of the latter). It doesn't have the arsenal, however, to make a "counterforce" strike on our Minuteman fields or Trident sub bases. No, Beijing has instead targeted our cities, called "countervalue." We have the warheads to try to take out all of China's nuclear missiles in a preemptive strike — but we'd better not miss any or, Goodbye LA. And it's not as if Russia, timelessly paranoid Russia, would stand by if polar-trajectory ICBMs are coming near. (Brezhnev asked Nixon for a free hand to take out China with nukes in 1969 — Nixon refused to give it).
It sounds alarmist. It sounds insane. This is the heart of the world economy in the new century. Nations that trade with each other don't go to war. We've reached a level of global interconnectedness that has made conflicts between great powers nearly impossible — the cost would be so great. These are exactly the arguments that were being made in the years before World War I.
China's hesitancy, or impotence, in reining in Pyongyang is cause for unease. This is a nation that has achieved world economic power. But its insistence on picking fights with smaller neighbors over relatively insignificant islands (whatever energy supplies exist in the nearby ocean or not) is a sign of political immaturity or serious discord between civilian and military leaders or within the overall Communist hierarchy. Either way, none of this is good. China has as much or more to lose here as we do. Yet remember, part of American exceptionalism is that we created a continental empire through conquest, then went out into the world to fight an enfeebled Spain. Chinese nationalists, equally sure of their exceptionalism, would love to run us out of the Pacific — without the nuclear war part, but these things have the potential to get out of control.
Another day we'll have the discussion about how the Constitution survives a nuclear detonation on American soil. Look at what nineteen hijackers with boxcutters did to it on 9/11? But that's for another day. In the meantime, I know it's fashionable to be blasé about what's developing in Korea. That might be a mistake.
[ADDENDUM] Friends don't let friends write late at night when they're exhausted, but such is the writing life. My intention is not scaremongering-to-fight, as happened in the run-up to Iraq. We need to re-evaluate our entire philosophy and strategy on projection of military power and attempting to be the World Police. Mr. Obama's "pivot to Asia" is not well thought out. The saber rattling on our side may be making things worse, not better. Yes, we have alliances, and with troops on the ground in South Korea we'll be in it however it starts. But why isn't this China's problem to fix? Still, I am not as complacent as some that this and other Asia hotspots will just work themselves out because there's money to be made. Or that a miscalculation by the North could be quickly contained. That's 1913 thinking.