Having studied the Korea conflict for a good portion of my academic career, I can agree with Noung that there are many bad ways to confront the Korean bomb. The main problem in North Korea's international relations, which is only briefly noted above, is that North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il is absolutely nucking futs. He's not just sadistic like Josef Stalin or greedy like Saddam Hussein or megalomanic like Napoleon: he's everything at once, plus alpha. (For more stuff on him, check out my node "How to raise your son to inherit your dictatorship.")

How do you deal with a nuclear power led by an insane individual? The short answer is to cover your arse several times over. So far, the United States has done this quite well, by keeping troops in the DMZ and Japan, as well as maintaining reasonably good relations with China. Kim might be crazy, but he's not suicidal: his nukes will only fly if retaliation is not a problem. Since he can't hit anything without getting decimated by American ICBM's, he won't fire his nukes. It's that simple.

(Incidentally, if you think that North Korea would ever nuke Seoul, you're probably missing the most important facet of the Korean conflict: both sides are Korean, and neither side really wants to decimate the other, despite some of the rhetoric you might hear. They're civilian brothers and sisters on each side of the line, and they pity each other more than they hate each other.)

"So what's the point of having a bomb, then?"

Theory 1: Our Best Asset Is Our Best Export, Too

As Bill Clinton once said, every country has its own staple exports, and North Korea's staple exports just happen to be guns, drugs, and weapons of mass destruction. Kim Jong Il has no motive to use nukes, but you can think of a lot of fellows who do. Middle East, anyone?

If China got in on the act, North Korea could send WMD's by train or truck to many other countries in Asia, and perhaps as far as the Middle East. Alternately, they could load up a freighter with nukes and sneak it out through the Yellow Sea.

How would you defend against this? The most obvious option would be a naval blockade of North Korea, mostly involving Japan and the U.S. Japan's territorial waters cover almost all of the navigable routes to and from North Korea, except for the Taiwan Strait. Again, if China were cooperating with the North, ships could still sneak south, but the U.S.-led coalition could easily take them out with forces from Taiwan or the Philippines.

Theory 2: Blackmail

There seems to be a meme going around in the American media that Kim Jong Il wants to somehow blackmail his neighbors with the threat of nukes. Usually, the scenario involves a threat to strike Japan if certain concessions are not made, since Japan is just about the only "enemy" country that North Korea can reach with its missiles.

The best defense against this strategy, in my view, would be the threat of massive retaliation. Why abandon a doctrine that worked so well in the Cold War? Tell Kim to go ahead and fire at Tokyo, but to be ready for the backlash thirty minutes later. After all, a quarter of North Korea's population could be incinerated in an instant by just six well-placed warheads...

Theory 3: Kim Really Wants Nuclear War

It's possible that Kim, as crazy as he is, might actually get off on the idea of single-handedly destroying the Earth. However, I don't find this likely. He's fruity as a nutcake, but again, he isn't suicidal.

If this were the case, though, there would be no real solutions to the problem. You could try to kill him, which would be a major feat in itself, but you would leave behind a lot of pissed off lieutenants whose words are backed by nuclear weapons. Not a good thing.

Catch-All Solution 1: Invade North Korea

Many pundits, ranging from Clinton to Noung, have called for military intervention to unseat the North Korean regime. I think this is a bad idea, mainly because:

  1. They have nukes. Nukes hit American bases, go boom, make big mess.
  2. They have a million troops in reserve. You don't get to be known as the most militarized society on Earth for nothing.
  3. They have a ridiculous firewall of land mines, mortars, artillery, and patrol aircraft guarding all the logical ways in.
  4. When all is said and done, the U.S. and its allies would be left with some of the most underdeveloped territory on Earth, necessitating vast amounts of investment just to bring it up to par with China, much less South Korea.
There isn't really a comparison to Iraq here, as some argue. Iraq was, in the words of another noder, fucking shit up in the world's biggest Pottery Barn. North Korea, if war broke out again, would be a credible, if not formidable, adversary for an expeditionary force to tackle.

Catch-All Solution 2: Let North Korea Rot

This is sort of what I'm in favor of, although many bleeding heart humanitarian hawks would disagree. Obviously, North Korea is not a viable state in its present condition: it will eventually reach a level of poverty and famine so crippling across the board that Kim's mighty military, or his gaunt peasantry, will stage a coup.

It's difficult to stand around while North Korea starves, but you have to keep in mind that the Workers' Party brass in Pyongyang have absolutely no problem doing just that. Giving food aid to North Korea is rather like giving money to a homeless heroin addict: you're pretty sure that they'll stay alive, but you also know that a good part of your dosh is going to a dealer somewhere to support a habit that will eventually get them killed.

Thank God I'm not George W. Bush, because this is a problem I'd hate to be personally faced with.