The Cold War adage that the United States and the Soviet Union were akin to two scorpions in a bottle—each able to destroy the other in a nuclear holocaust—appears to be reconstructing on the Korean Peninsula.
The Republic of Korea (ROK) counts as one of the very few U.S. successes in nation building in the post-World War II era. During the Korean War (1950–1953), approximately 50,000 U.S. military personnel died along with countless thousands of Korean soldiers and civilians (ROK and North Korean) and myriads of Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops.
Both sides of the peninsula, divided by the 38th parallel, were devastated. North Korean troops had swept almost to the southern tip of the peninsula in their initial assault. U.S. and allied forces had reciprocated in the North, reaching the Yalu River boundary with China, as well as bombing North Korean infrastructure into rubble.
Ten years later (1965–1966), I was a young Army intelligence officer at 8th Army Headquarters in Seoul. The ROK was a third-world country; debris had been cleared from the streets, but buildings still presented bullet holes and infrastructure was barely operational. I visited again 20 and 25 years later, and the country had changed dramatically. It had comprehensively modernized; it was becoming the economic powerhouse that it is now.
To a substantial extent, the result was the consequence of massive U.S. economic and military assistance coupled with a thinly disguised military dictatorship that didn’t end until 1987. For the past 30 years, the ROK has been a functioning, albeit flawed, democracy with “free and fair” elections. In 2011, Park Geun-hye, daughter of an earlier dictator, won the presidency, taking a conservative “tough on Pyongyang” line. The 2017 presidential election promises to reinforce existing democratic tradition.
For its part, the North, titled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has hewed a different line. It has become a “communist monarchy” with the son of the original dictator Kim Il-sung, succeeded by his son and now his grandson, Kim Jong-un. The Kim Dynasty is implacably vicious in its relentless violations of every human right. The DPRK population has been starved repeatedly and endless thousands incarcerated in concentration camps, with bare survival the only hope for their prisoners.
But terrible as such actions are, they would be largely irrelevant were the DPRK not a nuclear weapons state. And so armed, with its leader of questionable mental stability, Pyongyang is an existential threat not only to its immediate neighbors (Seoul and Tokyo) but also increasingly projected soon to threaten the United States with nuclear missiles, perhaps submarine launched.
The DPRK’s march to nuclear capability has been relentless and undeterred. One could recount the string of diplomatic initiatives and putative agreements designed to prompt Pyongyang to cease its nuclear weapons program. All failed. North Korea has ignored U.N. sanctions against conducting further nuclear weapons tests (it just announced the fifth—significantly larger than previous blasts) and ballistic missile tests, the most recent of which verged on intercontinental capability. A weaponized ICBM is a midterm likelihood.
Nor is there any reason to believe U.N. sanctions or economic restrictions of the most stringent nature will stop Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Kim clearly believes he gains global credibility with nuclear weapons, insulates himself against attack, and generates leverage against ROK/Japan by posing a day-to-day threat.
Bluntly, he is right. We lost our primary window of opportunity by failing to take kinetic action against the putative DPRK weapons program. Israel took such an approach against the Iraq Osirak reactor (1981) and the emerging Syrian reactor (2007). We fibrillated. Driven by fear of war on the peninsula, we put our hopes on Pyongyang promises.
But now it is bullet-biting time. There is no realistic expectation that words/sanctions will stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Nor is it realistic to believe that Beijing will intervene to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear development.
Do we and our allies choose to live under a North Korean nuclear threat, or do we take military action to eliminate it? Should we break the bottle and eliminate the North Korean “scorpion”?
Do we sanctify ROK and Japanese development of nuclear weapons to counter Pyongyang’s forces? Seoul/Tokyo are increasingly less confident that Washington would risk a nuclear attack to save Koreans and Japanese.
And absent either of these choices, what would we do when Pyongyang tests an ICBM that lands in international waters off San Francisco or Vancouver?
David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn From Each Other.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.