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Phil-osophically Speaking


The communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky once said that the 20th century was a dangerous place. Well, this century, at least so far, hasn’t been a sea of tranquility either. I hope by the time this is published the crisis on the Korean Peninsula will have been resolved without resorting to military action. The stakes are undoubtedly high and the consequences undoubtedly bloody and horrific if war breaks out.


My father was about to be shipped out to Korea when the armistice was signed in 1953. It has often been called the forgotten war, sandwiched between WWII and Vietnam. There is a memorial in Eisenhower Park for those who served in Korea, a fitting location since it was President Eisenhower who ended the war, which lasted 3 years and claimed the lives of least 2 million Koreans and 38,000 American servicemen.   


It was America’s first undeclared war of the 20th century, a police action pursuant to the doctrine of containment. It didn’t seem to accomplish much, at least as far as most Americans were concerned. When the war began, the 38th parallel separated North and South Korea and when it was over the boundary line was still the same. North Korea remained a communist power and South Korea a free market democracy. During the war a number of nations, pursuant to a U.N. Resolution, fought with America to repel the communist peril. Nevertheless the United States, as usual, shouldered almost the entire burden of defending South Korea.


The North Korean assault on South Korea took the United States completely by surprise. We had substantially demobilized our military after the formal surrender of Japan in September of 1945. This, in itself, was a provocation. Then, for reasons never entirely explained, Secretary of State Dean Acheson on a weekly news show neglected to mention South Korea as one of the areas vital to U.S. national security. Almost instantly North Korea surged over the 38th parallel. After taking an early battering, U.S. forces rebounded by driving the North Koreans all the way to the Yalow River and were on the brink of destroying the North Korean army when more than 400,000 Chinese joined the fight. It was the second great shock of the war. To make a long but engrossing story short, Eisenhower ended the conflict by threatening the use of tactical nuclear weapons. 


Since then there has been 60 years of an uneasy, sometimes tension filled peace. Over the last couple of weeks, the atmosphere around Korea is redolent with menace. A new, very young leader holds the reins of power and he has much to prove to the North Korean military, which completely dominates the life of the nation. North Korea is a small country that boasts a million plus army with a degree of nuclear firepower. Their population is brutalized, their economy in shambles, freedom an unknown concept. They depend on their large and powerful neighbor China to provide food and fuel. It is the antithesis of South Korea whose population thrives and prospers.

It is unnervingly fascinating to see that the same elements that were in place in 1950 still exist today: A dictator determined to unite the country under military communist rule, the respective North and South relying on their respective allies the United States and China as well as the interplay of nuclear weapons. As of this writing, North Korea may fire off another test missile; they’ve publically renounced the 1953 armistice; they’ve stated they cannot guarantee the safety of diplomats in their capitol; they have released videos of battle ready troops, attack dogs and all the accoutrements of war.  


The U.S. initially responded, I thought correctly, with a commendable show of force that included ships as well as the B-2 Stealth bombers and F-22 Jets. They’ve also sent destroyers equipped with Aegis phased array radar that fires SM3 missiles that can shoot down oncoming missiles. This is the famous defensive shield that Ronald Reagan strongly advocated 30 years ago and a technology, as I’ve stated before, that we should be more advanced in if we committed to it as we did the Manhattan Project.


In response, and most likely to the surprise of American policymakers, it’s Kim Jung Un and his generals who have seized the initiative compelling the U.S. to postpone a missile test for fear of escalating an already explosive situation. Playing an armchair general is free of consequences, easy to second guess decisions, but it certainly looks like North Korea is intimidating us rather than the other way around. For years, the regime has played the game that bullying and saber rattling brings concessions and gifts bearing their name, a strategy that has been borne out time and again. During this latest crisis nothing appears to have changed at a time when we need more than ever to convince other regimes such as Iran of America’s seriousness. There is no question that we will prevail and perhaps overwhelmingly if war breaks out in the region. But because of North Korea’s formidable firepower it will be at the expense of Seoul, South Korea’s capitol and hundreds of thousands of casualties.


We certainly want to avoid such a horrific scenario, after all this is no video game but the lives of innocent people. The $64,000 question, to borrow an old phrase, is would the North Korean leadership essentially commit suicide to destroy Seoul?  It would seem in terms of self- interest, as long as we don’t back Kim Jung Un and his minions into a corner the answer must be no.  But intelligence about Un and even the dynamics of this hermetically sealed regime is next to zero. That’s why history is often played out in the nerves and emotions rather than thoughts and ideas. It is also why the belief of creating a world without nuclear weapons, as Obama and even Reagan wistfully mused about, is unrealistic and dangerous. Through a series of arm control agreements, America has greatly reduced its nuclear weaponry and now finds itself in the unbelievable situation of being threatened by a nuclear attack from North Korea. 


By cancelling its missile test and being reduced to pleading with China to pacify Kim Jung Un, the U.S. looks weak to both its enemies and allies. Indeed, South Korea’s new president, Park Geun Hye (their version of Margaret Thatcher), is showing more testosterone than her giant ally. But diplomacy is not merely an exercise in machismo, it is also about perception. Both friends and foes are reacting to the weakening of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, which has the undesirable effect of potentially proliferating these destructive weapons. 


South Korea is considering developing its own nuclear fuel, very possibly with an eye toward developing nuclear weapons. How much longer before Japan, who also has been threatened by North Korea, does the same? As Iran fearlessly marches toward nuclear capability, Saudi Arabia is building nuclear reactors. In the face of such ominous developments, can Egypt, Syria and Turkey be far behind? Reducing America’s nuclear weaponry is having the paradoxical effect of increasing it elsewhere. We should stop reducing our nuclear arsenal and start modernizing it and supplementing it with missile and laser defense systems for ourselves and our allies. Only then will the tide of nuclear war and proliferation recede and wouldn’t that, as Jake Barnes remarked in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, be a pretty thing?