Viewed from Seoul or Tokyo, the U.S.’s obsession with Iran looks unbalanced.
No serious observer thinks a nuclear Iran is good for world peace, not with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s abhorrent anti-Semitism and threats to obliterate Israel. Yet the single-minded focus on Iran ignores a more immediate and provocative atomic threat: North Korea. It’s an oversight that U.S. President Barack Obama must rectify.
It was shocking, for instance, to hear the most isolated regime mentioned just three times during U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing, compared with the 55 references to Iran. The Vietnam War, which ended almost a decade before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was even born, warranted 24 mentions. The congressional grilling accorded to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry featured 18 references to Iran and 15 to Vietnam. North Korea? Three again.
The unintended consequences of this error of omission are seeping into South Korean policies in ways that should worry the U.S.
With troubling frequency, lawmakers and pundits are broaching the once-taboo idea of South Korea going nuclear. From Chung Mong Joon, a prominent member of the ruling New Frontier Party, to the editorial boards of newspapers such as Joong Ang Ilbo, talk of Seoul requiring homegrown deterrence demonstrates the danger of America’s Iran tunnel vision. Such a move by South Korea would certainty encourage Japan to acquire nuclear weapons. A north Asia arms race, anyone?
The fear is that if North Korea seriously considers an attack, the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella won’t be there as a deterrent to protect South Korea’s 50 million people. The Obama White House would surely dispute this and affirm its commitment to South Korea and its new president, Park Geun Hye.
But America’s fiscal challenges and political gridlock look ominous from Seoul. It’s hard to exaggerate how much North Korea’s latest nuclear test has spooked South Korea and has the nation pondering existential questions about the U.S. alliance. Obama and Congress must reassure officials in Seoul that they will be there should North Korea ever think the unthinkable is an option.
Consider this issue through the lens of South Korea. A nuclear North Korea and a potentially nuclear Iran, one often hears in Seoul, is the harvest of an ill-conceived U.S. foreign policy. When you brand three nations the “Axis of Evil” and attack one without provocation, as President George W. Bush did a decade ago, you give all the incentive that the other two need to go nuclear.
We can giggle at Kim’s eccentricities, which even brought basketball star Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang to share a laugh with the young dictator this month. Hey, table tennis helped pave Richard Nixon’s way to China in 1972 to meet Mao Zedong. A little basketball diplomacy can’t hurt. Yet Kim already has the nukes the world fears Iran may possess someday.
It is true that Obama has been preoccupied by a hobbled economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, China’s rise and a recalcitrant Congress. But consider one obvious side effect of the recent move to tighten U.S. sanctions against North Korea: a greater reason to turn the country into a one-stop-shopping nuclear bazaar.
Harsh sanctions are warranted, and it was heartening to see even China backing the most recent measures. Yet the less Kim earns from piracy, currency counterfeiting and other traditional income streams, the more he may turn to selling nuclear technology and actual weapons to other rogue nations or terrorist networks. If you think Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan made the world a more dangerous place by selling atomic know-how to all comers, imagine what damage the least transparent government could do.
Remember, too, the danger of vulnerable data networks. While China’s army of state-backed hackers is hogging the spotlight, Pyongyang has proven itself surprisingly adept at cyber shenanigans. That means everything from nuclear-power plants to government and think-tank databases anywhere in the world might offer Kim a treasure trove of information for his own use and for sale.
It’s surreal that Rodman may provide the U.S. with its best insights on Kim in 12 months. Unlike Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt, who visited Pyongyang in January, Rodman got some face time with Kim, who is thought to be 29 or 30. The idea of the Central Intelligence Agency perhaps debriefing Rodman, who in his playing days in in the National Basketball Association was known as much for his antics as on-court wizardry, speaks to the absurdity of Asian geopolitics.
No, Rodman’s accolades for Kim (he told CNN that “the kid is awesome”) aren’t helping the U.S.’s cause. There’s no way Obama should designate him as some sort of emissary to Pyongyang (Rodman says he plans to return this summer) nor should Obama indulge Kim’s tantrums. But the U.S. must craft a new and more proactive strategy to rein in Kim, one that includes increased contacts between the two countries. The U.S. also must think harder about the fallout from its North Korea policies. The last thing the world needs is an arms race in both north Asia and the Persian Gulf.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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