There very well may be another Korean war. But there is no longer a compelling reason for the United States to get involved in it.
North Korea has been rattling the nuclear saber, threatening to “destroy the Earth” if the United States does not do what it wants.
U.S. intelligence agencies estimate North Korea already has two nuclear bombs, a number which could grow by leaps and bounds now that North Korea has removed the seals from and disabled U.N. monitoring cameras at the Yongbyon nuclear plant, which is capable of extracting weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants. If North Korea reactivates the plant, it could produce enough plutonium to build as many as 100 bombs within a year.
North Korea also has tested successfully an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the west coast of the United States. North Korea's action violates not only the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of which it is a signatory, but also a 1994 treaty with South Korea, the United States, and Japan in which the three nations agreed to build for North Korea two non-threatening nuclear power plants if it would forgo its weapons development program.
The ability of the United States to respond to the burgeoning crisis is hampered by politics in South Korea. South Korea just had a presidential election, between the South Korean equivalent of George McGovern and the South Korean equivalent of Barry Goldwater. Roh Moo-hyun (McGovern) won narrowly. Mr. Roh is committed to expanding the “sunshine” policy of his predecessor. After disclosure of North Korea's perfidy, Mr. Roh had harsher words to say about the United States than about North Korea.
We cannot defend South Korea if the South Koreans are unwilling to defend themselves. And it is no longer important that we try. When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, we had two powerful reasons for coming to South Korea's defense: North Korea was then part of an international communist conspiracy directed by the Soviet Union. Had South Korea fallen, the Korean peninsula almost certainly would have been a jumping off point for aggression against Japan. And South Korea in 1950 was a poor country with a weak military and was incapable of defending itself.
Communism is no longer a global threat. North Korea's ambitions are pretty much restricted to conquest of South Korea, which would be a bad thing for South Koreans, but less than a catastrophe for the rest of the world. And South Korea today has twice the population and 10 times the economic strength of North Korea, and a military nearly as large and more technologically sophisticated. South Korea is capable of defending itself.
The odds that North Korea would attack the United States proper with nuclear weapons directly are infinitesimally small. The saber-rattlers in Pyongyang know the result of that would be to turn North Korea into a pile of irradiated rubble.
The great danger is that North Korea will sell its nuclear materials and weapons technologies to others who would be less reluctant to use them. On this we must be firm.
We can contain North Korea, but only with international help. The key to obtaining it is to remind people that North Korea is a problem for the world, not just for the United States. When North Korea removed the seals from the Yongbyon reactor, it was thumbing its nose at the United Nations.
And South Korea has more to lose from North Korean belligerency than we do. We must not permit this to become primarily a U.S.-North Korea confrontation.
While we work through diplomatic channels, we need to reduce our susceptibility to North Korean nuclear blackmail. The President's decision to accelerate deployment of a national ballistic missile defense is a firm step in the right direction.