A new Korean war? Maybe not if we use words, not weapons

It is not weakness but wisdom to exhaust diplomacy before we send our young men and women to war


There is North Korea news every day. And it’s unnerving.

Last week, we learned that the North Koreans may be able to make a nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile. Millions of Americans are reading their newspapers and wondering: What is this Korea thing actually about?

Can any of their missiles reach the United States?

No, they can’t.

North Korea has moved a medium-range nuclear missile to its east coast. It is a missile based on a Soviet system, with a range of 1,500 miles — far enough to reach Japan and, probably, Guam. It is not aimed at the United States.

Japan is our ally. An alliance means that if your ally is attacked, you fight to defend it.

South Korea is also our ally. The United States is dispatching a land-based, high-altitude missile defense to Guam. It has recently deployed B-52s, B-2s, and two F-22 stealth fighters to South Korea.

But what is the North Koreans’ motive? Are they crazy? Or suicidal?

Some commentators think so. Certainly North Korea’s leader may be all of that and more. But most scholars and diplomats who know North Korea say: No, this is not a crazy state. They say the North Korean government is afraid, craves attention, and always has gotten attention by making threats.

North Koreans are convinced the United States wants to attack North Korea. They also believe that if they act up, they will be rewarded for cooling down. The danger is that the war rhetoric and saber rattling will combine with a mistake.

Asia analyst Mike Chinoy of the University of Southern California says: “All it would take is for one helicopter to come down on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone. These kinds of accidents create a dynamic of escalation that would be hard to manage.”

All this, says Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, makes for a “complicated combustible situation.” Mr. Hagel says we must be both resolute and circumspect.

What else can U.S. policy makers do? Maybe change our policy.

Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg says: “As distasteful as it may seem, we may need to talk directly with the North Koreans.”

Mr. Gregg says that the policy of President George W. Bush was: Talking to North Korea rewards bad behavior. This policy has been adopted by President Obama.

Mr. Gregg asserts that it simply does not work with the North Koreans. They react to isolation with militancy and to diplomacy with moderation.

Listen to Mr. Gregg: “I have been dealing with Korean issues for 40 years, since I arrived as the CIA’s chief of station in Seoul. Later, from 1989 to 1993, I served as ambassador to South Korea. And time and again, I saw diplomacy work where confrontation would have failed.”

Mr. Gregg is no peacenik, but a former adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He has a point. If we have a country that threatens to declare war on us largely because we won’t talk to them, continuing to refuse to talk to them hardly seems the way to defuse the situation.

As a general principle, it is not weakness but wisdom to be sure we have exhausted diplomacy before we send our young men and women to war. This also means that, sometimes, we must talk with crazies and really bad guys. We talked with Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Mr. Gregg says President Obama should send a high-level emissary to test the waters. Last weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to open the door to direct talks.

War may come. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is so new and so untested that no one — not in the think tanks, at the CIA, or in the State Department — knows how paranoid or suicidal he may be.

And China, which finances Mr. Kim’s brutal regime, is not going to help us. China does not want a democratic, pro-American North Korea. It does not want us in Asia.

So there are certain fundamental, possibly intractable, problems here. And as the great Helmut Schmidt, a former chancellor of Germany, once said, Americans wrongly assume that every problem has a solution.

We must defend our citizens and soldiers in South Korea and Guam. We are obligated to aid our allies. But a new Korean war is not a solution. It would make the Iraq war look like a Boy Scout mud game.

We should make more of an effort than we are now making to avoid war. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by talking.

Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.comor 419-724-6266.