Fear and loathing in Pyongyang

Zach Wiita

One of the stranger things you encounter in politics is the tendency that many people have to equate every two-bit dictator to Adolf Hitler, every potential conflict to the rise of Nazi Germany and any use of diplomacy to appeasement. It’s a strange, strange fantasy world to visit.

Take, for example, Newt Gingrich’s appearance this weekend on Fox News. Speaking in anticipation of North Korea’s missile launch (believed by the U.S. to be a pretext to test an ICBM), the former House Speaker warned that an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) created by advanced nuclear weaponry had the potential to terminate all electrical production in the United States, reducing America to a pre-industrial society overnight.

What Speaker Gingrich neglected to say is that North Korea’s nuclear and missile technologies are woefully underdeveloped. According to a March 27 report from the Washington Post, North Korea has weaponized its plutonium stockpile – enough to build only four or five bombs. Experts disagree on whether North Korea has the technical capacity to miniaturize its nuclear warheads enough to fit them on missiles, but it is believed that even if they have this ability, their warhead designs will be the equivalent of several hundred tons of TNT – certainly far less than the multiple kilotons of an advanced nuclear weapon, and nothing akin to an EMP.

Further, North Korea’s missiles, while often sold to states such as Syria, Pakistan, and Iran, are inaccurate and out of date. Most of its missiles are thought to be variants of the Scud missile design, and most experts agree that they could never hope to hit the continental U.S.

This hasn’t stopped Gingrich from comparing the situation to the rise of Nazi Germany. “We . have a propensity to lie to ourselves, just as we did in the 1930s about Adolf Hitler and about Nazism .” To an extent, Speaker Gingrich is right in bringing up appeasement, but it’s important not to take the parallel too far.

Rather, the North Korean government’s goal is to scare the U.S. and its allies into, in essence, bribing North Korea into behaving, by developing primitive nuclear weapons capable of causing destruction in Japan and South Korea. They do not intend to actually use these weapons. Hitler certainly wanted the Allies to appease him, too, but the difference is that Hitler actually meant to attack someone.

Kim Jong-Il, by contrast, likely recognizes that his government’s ability to survive when its command economy has produced widespread poverty, malnutrition and starvation, is dependent upon his ability to receive aide from foreign states.

In other words, Nazi Germany was acting from strength, while North Korea is acting from weakness. Adolf Hitler sought concessions to create a false sense of security in his enemies before attacking them. Kim Jong-Il is just trying not to be overthrown.

If the United States and its allies recognize that North Korea is negotiating from a position of weakness, there is no particular reason for war. Indeed, given both the presence of U.S. and Japanese anti-ballistic missiles in the Sea of Japan and the size of the North Korean army compared to the allied ground troops protecting South Korea, a war would be devastating and costly for both sides – and Kim Jong-Il is probably well aware that even if he succeeded in killing millions, such a conflict would only end in his own capture.

The real course seems obvious: return to the negotiating table. Generate international support for punishing North Korea if it continues to develop its nuclear program. This is not a course of action that lacks its own problems – after eight years of international atrophy during the Bush administration, the United Nations has clearly forgotten how to make itself matter in an international crisis, and Russia feels so alienated from the U.S. under Bush that it’s disinclined to cooperate with us.

But if we can relearn how to wield the weapon of diplomacy, war is avoidable. We need to remember that the North Koreans are akin to cornered animals. They are desperate and potentially dangerous if provoked, but a strong combination of carrots and sticks can control them.

Don’t tell Speaker Gingrich, though. He disdains such a “fantasy foreign policy.” His solution to the missile launch this weekend? Use lasers to shoot it down.

Sometimes the jokes write themselves.

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theatre studies major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].