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Nuclear Standoff in Korea Key to Crushing the North

Column by Matthew H. Hersch

Opinion Editor

Just because I like nuclear weapons, that doesn't necessarily make me a bad person. Quite the opposite, really. People who tolerate nuclear weapons are a whole lot more reasonable and controlled in suggesting foreign policy than hyperactive warmongers and beatnik no-nukers. And when someone who accepts the inevitability of nuclear weapons actually suggests a policy of confrontation towards another state -- as I am about to do -- you can be damn sure that he's thought everything out carefully before he started typing.

What I am trying to get around to is North Korea -- the stodgy, belligerent communist state separated from its U.S.-backed brother South Korea by a U.N. demilitarized zone and persistent insanity. North Korea is one of the last holdouts of oppressive Marxism, and South Korea is a nation racked by separation anxiety and a history of struggling democracy and troubled government. Both North and South have expressed interest in reunification, but not since 1950, when the North invaded the South, has anything really been done to try to bring the two nations together.

U.N. coalition fighting stabilized the problem in 1950 but left North Korea intact (sound familiar?). Ever since, 40,000 U.S. troops and some shiny American nuclear weapons have been the only things keeping the North from streaming across the border again.

Relations between North and South have thawed noticeably in the last few months, though, for a couple of reasons. Southerners are suffering from West Germany reconciliation sickness, and the North is on the verge of economic collapse. The major sticking point, though, has been nuclear weapons.

The North has a nuke development program to balance the threat of U.S. weapons based in the South, but has expressed interest in abandoning the program if the United States removes its nukes from South Korea. Then again, sometimes the North Koreans refuse to go along with the plan because they won't allow inspectors into the country. Sometimes, though, they say they will. It is commonly believed that the North is just trying to jerk the United States around until it has finished its bomb. Even if it isn't, we should not cave in.

If you ask me, we should tell the North to keep its bomb and shut up. Intrusive verification of treaty commitments doesn't work, because any one who wants nukes badly enough, like Saddam, can find ways of hiding them. And a nuclear North Korea won't change the security picture in the peninsula very much. Any actual use of nuclear weapons by the North would bring massive retaliation from the U.S., and any deterrent schemes the North might be working on wouldn't fly.

The North, presumably, would use the nukes to deter a joint American-South Korean surprise attack on the North. However, the U.S. is already deterred from this unlikely action by Chinese nuclear weapons across the Sino-Korean border. The North could also presumably use the nukes during wartime to, for example, discourage American nuclear retaliation for a successful Northern conventional strike southward across the 38th parallel. But when the North nearly pushed U.S. forces into the sea in 1950, we didn't use nukes. The United States, as explained by former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, has adopted a policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons -- it would never think of using nuclear weapons, especially in Third World conflicts, unless it was first attacked with them. The United States and North Korea would be mutually deterred from escalating conventional wars into nuclear confrontations. Besides, non-nuclear weapons like fuel-air explosives pack the same bang as nukes but spread less political (and physical) fallout.

In short, a North Korean bomb is nothing to worry about, because the United States has always acted as if the North had one already, through either its associations with China or those with the USSR. Instead of worrying about the bomb, the United States should concentrate on containing, isolating, and squashing North Korea by forcing it to continue an expensive nuclear weapons program.

North Korea is already teetering on collapse -- the government has recently installed a propaganda campaign to convince people to eat only two meals a day because scientists have proven that food is bad for you. Even government-sanctioned news coverage reveals barren city streets, empty hands, and roads devoid of cars. The North's gigantic standing army should also be rusting right about now, and once soldiers start going hungry, revolution is certain.

The Bush Administration gripes endlessly about remaining the world's only superpower, complaining all the while about the uncertainty of the future. The United States can only remain a superpower, though, if it maintains the initiative in foreign affairs, and a good way to do this is to commit to a policy goal, like freedom and democracy and all of that good stuff.

In Asia, America's goal should be a free and united Korea by the year 2000.