The news this week of a North Korean nuclear test is profoundly worrisome for three reasons.
First, the nature of the regime is such that all assumptions of what we call rational state behavior are off the table.
North Korea, under the iron fist of Kim Jong-il—or the “Great Leader,” as he is officially called in his country—is highly dangerous.
Recent history has shown that promises and pledges to outside parties mean little to him. Rather, the perception that his country is capable of doing anything is arguably his strongest weapon. And he may well be right.
The regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs are moving ahead in the face of a global strategy that alternately assails and appeases North Korea.
Whatever the reasons offered for Pyongyang’s policy – some assert it is about blackmailing the world to provide aid to a desperately poor country; others claim it is to generate foreign currency earnings by selling weapons systems and technology; and still others believe it is to force Washington into a “grand bargain” that entails recognition, assistance, and security guarantees – the bottom line remains the same.
No formula has yet been found to persuade North Korea to abandon its belligerent strategy.
While the world produces platitudes, North Korea produces plutonium.
While the world tests new diplomatic approaches, North Korea tests a plutonium nuclear bomb that reportedly approximates the power of the bomb dropped over Nagasaki in 1945.
While the world launches diplomatic broadsides, North Korea launches ballistic missiles, with ever longer ranges, that could one day carry nuclear warheads.
Second, North Korea is a proliferator.
Indeed, now that Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan is presumably out of the picture, Pyongyang holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s top vendor of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) technology.
And history has shown that North Korea has no scruples about where and what it sells.
Iran and Syria are two of its biggest clients.
Evidence abounds of the heavy North Korean imprint on Iran’s WMD programs. Indeed, the Iranian Shahab-3 missile is based on North Korea’s Nadong missile.
Syrian-North Korean missile cooperation is another fact of life. Moreover, the Syrian nuclear facility that managed to escape the world’s attention until Israel destroyed it on September 6, 2007, was being built according to North Korean blueprints.
While efforts to disrupt the outward flow of North Korean weapons and technology have borne some fruit—thanks, in part, to the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict the transfer of banned weapons—the net thrown around the country has proved porous.
And third, surely no one is watching North Korea’s current behavior more closely than Iran.
Think of it this way.
North Korea has already crossed the nuclear threshold. It possesses ballistic missiles. Its leader has little regard for the well-being of his citizens. And no one can be certain how he will behave in any given situation.
That gives Kim Jong-il the confidence to believe that he holds most, if not all, of the cards.
He knows that no nation will strike him first with nuclear weapons because of the self-imposed restraints on other nuclear-armed states. But those states don’t know whether he would attack them.
Surely he believes that American troops stationed in Japan and South Korea, much less their host nations, don’t have any appetite for another war. So let their leaders bluster all they want. It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. We, North Korea, are ready to take casualties; they’re not.
And he has counted on China and Russia to stand as a buffer between the more assertive Western nations and himself—and so far he hasn’t been entirely wrong.
Now let’s take Iran.
The key difference today between Tehran and Pyongyang is that the former has not quite yet built nuclear weapons, while the latter has.
Once Iran crosses the nuclear goal line, then it would expect to be in a position not dissimilar from that of North Korea, i.e., Tehran gains the upper hand.
Given the eschatology of Iran’s Shiite leaders, who believe in hastening the “return” of the ninth-century Mahdi—the hidden, or 12th, Imam and the ultimate savior of humankind—rationalism, at least as we understand the term, cannot be assured.
Remember Iran’s policy of sending thousands of school-age boys into the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq War as fodder to clear mines?
Each of those human sacrifices was given a plastic key meant to open the gates to heaven and a blissful afterlife. If their parents rose up in protest, I missed the reporting.
The point is that such a regime cannot be counted on to act responsibly.
With good reason, Iran could assume that once it joins North Korea in the nuclear club, the world would have to treat it more deferentially, more gingerly.
To these arguments, some assert that Iran is not North Korea. Unlike North Korea, Iran seeks integration, not isolation. Its people would never accept the dangers and deprivations inherent in the North Korean strategy.
Maybe so, or, then again, maybe not.
Does anyone really want to reach the point where we are sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for the answer to whether a nuclear-armed Iran can be counted on to act with restraint? Or whether the anticipation of the Hidden Imam is worth the sacrifice in lives, and, if so, how many? Or whether the Iranian people would go along with, or rise up against, leaders driven to nuclear brinkmanship?
In the punditocracy, there is never a shortage of answers to every world problem. And there is never an excess of shame when previous answers don’t quite work out as planned.
I don’t pretend to know how to solve the complex North Korean puzzle.
I do know that it poses an immense challenge to regional and global stability, and that how it plays out is being closely watched elsewhere, beginning in Tehran.
And I also know that huffing-and-puffing by world leaders in reaction to the latest nuclear test will only get us so far.
I can only pray for the wisdom of those leaders to get this one right. The stakes are high—and only getting higher.
Failure, as they say, simply cannot be an option.
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