As the U.S. takes the lead in formulating the international response to North
Korea's (apparently fizzled) nuclear test, there is a question which ought to be
Why is this our problem?
In 1950, this was easy to answer. The fledgling democracy in South Korea was too
weak to protect itself.
North Korea was then an agent of an international Communist conspiracy. We
intervened in Korea less to protect the South Koreans than to protect Japan.
But that was more than half a century ago. The Soviet Union has collapsed. The
Communists who run China these days seem more interested in making money than in
North Korea remains Stalinist, has a formidable military, and still dreams of
conquering the South. But its objectives are peninsular, not global, and it has
little likelihood of obtaining them, even without American intervention.
That's because South Korea also has a formidable military, which could be made much
more formidable if the South Koreans chose to do so. South Korea today has more
than twice the population of North Korea, 24 times the national wealth.
Our greatest fear is that North Korea will sell nuclear technology and/or missile
technology to another rogue state, or to a terror group.
That concern is real, but the fizzling of the North Korean nuclear test suggests it
may be overblown.
The North Koreans have been trying to convert the "spent" uranium fuel rods used in
nuclear power reactors into plutonium to build bombs. But they screwed up the
reprocessing, speculated my friend Jack Wheeler in his newsletter, "To the Point
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il wants the bomb yesterday, so North Korean
scientists are under enormous pressure to make enough plutonium to build one.
The longer you leave the rods in the reactor, the more uranium is converted into
plutonium. But if you leave the rods in too long, you'll screw the pooch. That's
because the ratio of isotopes in the plutonium changes the longer you leave it in
For the reaction to assemble fast enough for a nuclear detonation, at least 90
percent of the plutonium must consist of the P-239 isotope. If more than ten
percent consists of the P-240 or P-242 isotopes, the explosion will fizzle.
If that's what happened, then the North Korean stockpile of plutonium is too
polluted with P-240 and P-242 to be made into bombs, Jack said.
And if that's so, neither North Korean expertise nor North Korean nuclear materials
will be of much value anytime soon to Islamic terrorists.
The network of A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist, is said to have played a
major role in North Korea's nuclear development. If that's so, we have a more
proximate threat of nuclear proliferation. The Pakistani bomb worked, and Islamists
like (the now deceased) A. Q. Khan are more likely to assist Islamic radicals in
pursuit of the bomb than are the North Koreans.
Our other fear with regard to North Korea is that in a future conflict, it might
launch nuclear tipped ballistic missiles at the United States. This was always a
remote possibility, because it would be tantamount to national suicide on the part
of the North Korean regime. And after the fizzled nuclear test and the botched test
last July of its long range Taepo Dong II missile, it doesn't seem like the North
Koreans will have the capability to hit our cities anytime soon, however much they
might want to.
We wouldn't have to worry so much about North Korean nukes descending on Seattle or
San Francisco if we weren't continuing to guarantee South Korea's military security,
even though there is no longer a compelling reason why we should.
I suspect our prominence in Korean affairs is more a hindrance than a help in
getting the nations of the region to rein in their rogue neighbor.
If China and South Korea don't go along, sanctions against North Korea can't work.
China has viewed North Korea as more of an asset than a liability, chiefly because
of the discomfort the Norks have caused us. Remove us from the equation or lower
our profile and China may focus more on the headaches Kim Jong Il causes them.
And as long as South Korea can rely on its security pact with us, it has no reason
to modify its appeasement policy toward the Norks. Remove or reduce that security
guarantee, and South Korea would have to toughen up.
"There are no permanent alliances, only permanent interests," said Lord Palmerston,
a 19th Century British foreign secretary. On the Korean peninsula, our interests are
no longer served by our alliance.