The Iraqi Precedent in Pyongyang
Here’s a bold prediction for the new year: there won’t be a nuclear apocalypse with North Korea in 2018.
Why? There’s the common sense argument. Kim Jong Un isn’t a lunatic, he doesn’t seek annihilation by the U.S., and he’s following the faux-warmonger precedent because it’s gained North Korea far more from hand-wringing Westerners than disarmament would. But those points are neglected by so many self-styled “experts” like the Nork-watchers at Vox, a left-wing website, who sternly claim that “we are sleepwalking toward war with North Korea.”
A dose of reality is needed to cure the angst. Far from being a world-threatening empire, North Korea is a tin-pot dictatorship. The New York Times reported that a supposedly game-changing ballistic missile launched on April 28 by the hermit state flew a measly 44 miles within North Korean borders, wrecking some facilities in one of its own towns. In the words of one writer on the conservative website RedState, however, the Times treated the launch as “some sort of major success for Kim Jong Un.”
Yet this isn’t a minor failure by an otherwise technological behemoth. North Korean missile launches fail 88 percent of the time, usually self-destructing or falling from the sky. That isn’t to say practice doesn’t make better, but the regime’s missile program obviously isn’t led by a Korean Wernher von Braun.
Neither, of course, should the United States make light of the Kim regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology. As ever, temperance in policy should be the order of the day.
And while nuclear apocalypse is unlikely in the near future, regime change in Pyongyang is not. Fortunately for us observers, this isn’t the first time an enemy dictator has sought and obtained weapons of mass destruction in order to keep American troops at bay -- and been removed for his troubles.
Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had one foreign policy strategy: establishing Middle Eastern hegemony. In the 1980s he invaded his chief rival, Iran, and in the ensuring war the Iraqi army employed chemical weapons (mustard agent and nerve gases) against enemy combatants. Reeling from that brutal stalemate and impoverished by cheap global oil prices, he rebounded by invading Kuwait in 1990 in an effort to rebuild his battered state by adding Kuwaiti oil reserves to his own. At the time, U.S. officials widely believed the dictator would turn his sizable army towards seizing Saudi Arabia, then the largest oil producer in the world. (In retrospect, it might have been a wise move if it had made the country untenable for an American expeditionary beachhead, complicating U.S. invasion plans.) Controlling Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would have automatically put Saddam in control of a shocking amount of the world’s oil reserves, helping him to punch (diplomatically) far above his weight.
North Korea in 2018 can only dream of access to the oil wealth Saddam enjoyed. But in his quest for regional power, Kim Jong Un seems to share the Iraqi’s nuclear ambitions as well. There is a precedent. According to U.N. documents, in 1990 a Pakistani scientist offered to sell Saddam a $150 million package that included nuclear weapons designs, production plants, and foreign weapons experts able to equip the regime with nuclear arms using Pakistani expertise. The deal apparently fell through when the U.S. invaded later that year; but Saddam’s defeat clearly strengthened his determination to obtain nuclear weapons.
Before staking the liberal claim that “Bush lied, people died” in the 2003 Iraq invasion, recall that Obama director of national intelligence James Clapper Jr. said at the time that he thought satellite images showing abnormally large traffic from Iraq into Syria were likely Saddam’s chemical weapons. "I think people below the Saddam-Hussein-and-his-sons level saw what was coming and decided the best thing to do was to destroy and disperse," he said. And considering the U.S. removed the last 550 metric ton stockpile of Iraqi “yellowcake” uranium from the country in 2008, it’s worth bearing in mind that -- whether Saddam possessed nukes in 2003 or not -- the dictator’s military strategy clearly revolved around acquiring them.
By no means should the U.S. consider the Iraq War a blueprint for handling North Korea. But the precedent is important. No one in the 1990s considered Saddam Hussein a lunatic for wanting nukes because his reasons were obvious: seizing regional control and keeping out the Americans. Why should modern Americans treat the Norks differently?
Instead of assuming the Norks want to strike the U.S. homeland, a more thoughtful analysis is that -- like Pakistan, Iran, Syria, and all dictatorships faced with hostile neighbors -- North Korea is more concerned about its immediate security needs at home than leveling Seattle. History shows too often that a dictator’s greatest enemies are the people he rules, not the democracies he opposes. There is little reason to assume Kim is the exception.
Let us focus instead on the states most affected by a North Korean nuclear arsenal: China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Should it become clear to the Trump administration that the Kim regime possesses nuclear capabilities, a U.S.-led coalition is undoubtedly ready for regime change. In this, American and Chinese interests seem to converge, as Beijing is almost certainly opposed to anyone parking nukes on its doorstep.
If anyone strikes first, don’t be surprised if it’s China.