Mr. Steven Leser, one of my admired contributors to OEN and a generally anti-war writer has just published in OEN an article, titled, "North Korea - Impending Missile Launch May Require US Military Action". In this article, he suggests that the North Korean situation poses such a grave threat to the security of the United States that we may have to consider a preemptive military strike against N. Korea to "stop a potential catastrophe". Is it true that such "a dangerous situation is brewing in the Korean peninsular", as he suggests?
To state my conclusion up front, I must say that Mr. Leser is overreacting to the North Korean situation, although it must be generally admitted that it is not a good thing that N. Korea is developing a nuclear weapons program. But before we draw any firm conclusion, we must look at the real facts: not the peripheral facts but the fundamental facts that underlie the overall situation. Many people, who sound alarm bells like Mr. Leser does, don't seem to understand how puny a country N. Korea really is. According to the CIA World Factbook, N. Korean GDP for 2008 was about US$26 billion, which is approximately 3% of the GDP of South Korea for that year (at about US$860 billion). Compared with the US for 2008 (at US$14.3 trillions), the N. Korean GDP was truly miniscule, approximately 1/5 of one percent of the US GDP for that year.
If we appreciate that a nation's military power really comes from its overall economic power, rather than from a handful of weapons it may or may not possess, you can begin to see why this whole standard media coverage of the N. Korean situation making it out as if it poses a serious threat to world peace is closer to a farce and should really be considered part of a campaign by the military/industrial complex to make the world look more hazardous than it really is. Anyone who is still unconvinced may be reminded that we have also tightly surrounded N. Korea with thousands times, if not tens of thousands times, far more powerful nuclear weapons and superior precision missiles, and that we maintain the capability to literally annihilate N. Korea within minutes (about 8 minutes according to knowledgeable source) from the moment it launches, or shows serious signs of preparing to launch, a nuclear attack on us or on any of our allies in the region. Since we have also put N. Korea on notice that any sale of its nuclear materials or missile technology to a rogue terrorist group would be absolutely unacceptable to us, N. Korea must understand that such acts will be treated by us as a hostile act on its part and has the potential of triggering a military retaliation from us. Under these circumstances, one has to wonder just what kind of military threat N. Korea can possibly pose to any country in its neighborhood, let alone the United States, thousands miles away.
The most reasonable interpretation of what N. Korea is trying to do is to attract the attention of the United States and outside world so that it can bargain its nuclear program away in exchange for beneficial economic assistance it needs badly. N. Koreans have made many statements to that effect, and there is no rational basis to doubt the sincerity of their statements. N. Korea is at the brink of collapse and its population starving in large numbers. N. Korea really needs large scale economic assistance, not nuclear weapons, but they may, perhaps erroneously, believe that they could not get any economic assistance from the United States, which has been in hostile relationship with it, unless it possesses nuclear weapons that they can use as a means for bargaining for such assistance. The Clinton administration, at one point, accepted that view and entered into such agreement with N. Korea, but only to renege it in the end before the agreement took real effect. Even the Bush administration, which reversed the Clinton administration approach, in the end took the same approach but, again, reneged the agreement with N. Korea on rather technical points.
Given the history of the relationship between the two parties, the mutual distrust is understandable but the fundamental problem with the past agreements between the United States and N. Korea have been that we have demanded N. Korea to dismantle its nuclear facilities (which is irreversible once done) in exchange for our mere promise that we would provide economic assistance, without any irrevocable guarantee, which really means nothing as a consideration for a hard bargain. It is like asking to transfer the legal title and possession of a personal property well before handing out the purchase price to the seller. No businessmen is likely to agree and abide by such one-sided agreement even in the normal, mundane business world, although in the usual business world the buyer would have at least the recourse of bringing an action in the court of law, which is not available in the international bargaining between two hostile countries.
The most important practical point for us to ponder, although this point is almost universally ignored in the standard media coverage, is that it will not even cost much money (probably less than the costs of our continuing war in Iraq or in Afghanistan for one or two weeks, at most) to buy out the N. Korean nuclear program for good if we really care about it. In reality, however, we have been doing practically everything to make N. Korea feel threatened and paranoid but noting to induce them to give up their nuclear program and to participate in the outside world of commerce and trade. In fact, we have blocked their participation and trade with the outside world by vigorous economic sanctions as long as we can remember.
To think that N. Koreans are so irrational and crazy that they just might be totally and unconditionally suicidal, as may be implicit in Mr. Leser's reasoning, is the epitome of racism and xenophobia. No diplomacy with any country is even remotely feasible unless and until you accept the fundamental proposition that even enemies are humans, that therefore they basically think and feel like us, and that we can therefore deduce at least the general outlines of their reasoning, if not their specific plans and ambitions in detail, from their given situation. To deny this is to deny the humanity of our enemy and to deny any possible rational resolution of our disputes with any other country, except by war, even where there are common grounds for a productive negotiation and peaceful settlement. In this sense, it is sad to say that our government position toward N. Korea to date has been as irrational as that of N. Korea, if not more so. Especially since we are by far the stronger party militarily, economically and in every conceivable angle, we, the United States, not N. Korea, have the upper hands and we alone are in the position of making diplomatic initiatives that might break the ice. In fact, as things stand right now, it may be closer to the truth if we say that under intense pressure from none other than ourselves, N. Korea may be reacting the only way available to them. The puzzling question is whether we are doing it out of stupidity or by intentional design.