Opinion: North Korea shows the true limit of American power


BOSTON — Last summer newspapers ran a picture of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates peering through binoculars at North Korea. It symbolized the depressing truth that with all the billions spent on diplomatic, military, and spy agencies, what they could see through their lenses was just about the sum of their knowledge about North Korea.

They might have been looking at the moon.

This is only a slight exaggeration. But what we really know about North Korea is less than we know about any other country in the world. What we can do about what we
don’t know is even less.

For neo-conservatives who took charge in the last administration, it was an article of faith that American military power could, and should, change the world in a manner advantageous to the United States. President George W. Bush expounded his doctrine of pre-emptive warfare during a speech at West Point. But if there were ever an example of what America can and cannot do, North Korea is the ultimate example.

Sixty years ago Kim Il-sung, the absolute dictator of one of Asia’s strangest Marxist mutations, sent his armies south of the 38th parallel to trigger three years of war. The conflict dragged in China on Kim’s side, and about 15 allied countries on ours. Three years later, after deaths beyond counting, including about 30,000 Americans, a hostile ceasefire took hold. But there was no real peace.

North Korea remains the world’s most incorrigible bad boy.

The sinking of a South Korean ship, a clear violation of the cease-fire, is only the latest such incident. Forty-two years ago the North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo, which was gathering intelligence in international waters and kept its crew in prison under torture for 11 months. The ship was never returned. The United States stood by helpless.

North Korea has tested missiles by firing them over Japan, sent agents into South Korea on suicide missions, and, weirdest of all, kidnapped random Japanese civilians who were doomed to spend the rest of their lives in captivity — just to learn about everyday life in Japan.

Worst of all for the tranquility of the world, North Korea has become a nuclear power despite the efforts of several American administrations. President Bill Clinton made a deal. The Koreans cheated. President Bush tried complete isolation and hostility. That only made it worse. Dick Cheney hoped to bring about regime change, but unlike Iraq there was no way to do it. President Obama tried to lessen tensions. North Korea increased tensions.

Not only has North Korea defied everybody by making a bomb, it has exported its nuclear technology. Israel had to destroy a North Korean-designed bomb plant in Syria.

Carrots have been offered, sticks brandished, bribes tried, but North Korea continues on as the number one international outlaw.

The reason that North Korea cannot be intimidated is that it holds South Korea by the throat. It’s capital, Seoul, is within artillery range of the border. Even if North Korea didn’t have a bomb, Seoul is still held hostage.

Secondly, North Korea has China on its side, which sees it in its interest to keep hapless North Korea afloat. The United States keeps hoping that the Chinese will one day put pressure on their ally, but they never do. “China Balks at Criticism of North Korea, ” ran a recent headline.

The only game in town, the so-called six-party talks with China, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas, has produced little and is destined to produce less.

So while the United States gins up ever-more stringent sanctions on Iran, which hasn’t got a bomb, it is impotent when it comes to North Korea, which has several bombs. The Bush administration invaded Iraq because it might have a bomb — it didn’t — but couldn’t do anything to prevent North Korea from making one.

Iran insists it isn’t making a bomb, but an unbelieving America says it won’t take military force off the table. Korea says look over here, we have several bombs now, but military force is already off the table.

The Obama team said it’s time to get tough. “We are out of the inducement game,” a senior administration official told the New York Times. “For 15 years at least, the North Koreans have been in the extortion business, and the U.S. has largely played along. That’s over,” he said, sounding much like the Bush administration. But he offered no solutions. American power simply doesn’t extend north of the 38th parallel.

We have photographs of a recent Party gathering in the North, and we pour over them trying to divine pecking orders from who is sitting next to whom. Kim’s son, Jong-un, may or may not be the heir apparent. All we really know is that all our hopes and plans for North Korea might have effectively died still-born, and that maybe, someday, we will be notified of the next of Kim.