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War Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card January 6, 2003

Why We Won't Invade North Korea

We've been hearing it from a lot of anti-Bush commentators -- including some who should know better:

"Why are we preparing to invade Iraq, which has no nukes yet, when we're using diplomacy with North Korea, which actually has them?"

Of course, you can take that as a self-answering question. Let's see -- which is safer to invade, the country that almost has nukes, or the country that already has them?

But the real answer is much more complicated.

First, let's keep in mind what we're actually trying to accomplish in Iraq. We aren't preparing to invade because Saddam's been a bad boy, or because we want to have an America colony in Mesopotamia. It's not a punishment, it's not retribution.

It's prevention.

You can't fight a war to prevent something that's already happened. Preventive war to keep North Korea from getting nukes is impossible.

At the same time, it is absolutely imperative that North Korea's nukes be neutralized. But how is that to be done?

For some Americans, the first thought is, Send in the Marines!

But military action should never be the first resort. Every time you use military force, you teach your enemies how to defeat you the next time. The best use of military force is to create the impression of invincibility -- and then avoid testing it.

Conventional military action is not quite the last resort, however. I would put "nuking them back to the stone age" even farther down the list. Even lower than "sending Bill Clinton to negotiate another great treaty."

Most people don't understand what President Bush means when he says that we will pursue a "diplomatic solution."

He doesn't mean that we'll negotiate with North Korea. What would be the point of that? They don't keep their treaties anyway.

The diplomacy that will solve the problem is happening right now -- between us and China.

That's right, China. Because this is China's problem as much as it is ours.

The only reason North Korea exists as a separate political entity is because in the early '50s, when U.N. forces had virtually overrun all of North Korea, China sent a huge army that flung us back south. Only when each army held roughly the territory that had been North or South Korea before the war did the Chinese agree to an armistice.

This was a huge victory for China, and it remains one of the proudest moments in their history. Never mind that it has meant fifty years of desperate poverty and utter lack of freedom, while being forced to virtually worship a couple of megalomaniacal dictators. China beat the U.S.-led allies and kept North Korea safe for Communism.

Do you think there's even the slightest chance that China would let the U.S. conduct any kind of military action against North Korea without massive retaliation?

At the very least, there would be an prompt invasion of Taiwan. At the worst, it might mean some level of nuclear war -- certainly against South Korea, and quite possibly against Japan and even the U.S.

Foreign policy is conducted in the real world. In the real world, madmen like Saddam Hussein respond only to credible military force -- and sometimes not even then. For the safety of our friends and allies in the region (notably Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait), and to protect the First World's vital oil supplies from domination by a ruthless enemy, it is reasonable to strike that enemy before he wreaks devastation again.

In that same real world, however, there are opponents whom it is simply too dangerous to fight, unless you are forced into it. If China or Russia attacked us, of course we would defend ourselves. But we would have to be insane to provoke either of them into war.

That's why we left Russia to deal with Chechnya without our interference while using military force to protect Bosnia and Kosovo from the Serbs.

Does this mean that we're like bullies, picking on the little guys while leaving really dangerous enemies alone?

Not at all. It means that while we have a moral responsibility to prevent truly dangerous or evil actions wherever it is within our power to do so, we can't do it where it is not within our power without unleashing worse evils on the world.

Militarily challenging Russia over Chechnya would almost certainly have plunged the world into a massive war, to no good end.

Likewise, taking military action in North Korea would lead to immediate war with China. And sane people don't want that.

So what do our negotiations with China consist of?

Cutting through all the diplomatic niceness, here's what we undoubtedly said to them:

"You're the ones who kept us from getting rid of the Kim dictatorship fifty years ago. So now it's your responsibility either to take away their nukes, or get rid of the Kim government and replace it with a sane one."

To which the Chinese almost certainly replied, "Perhaps we can work something out. You can take the first step by withdrawing all military support from Taiwan. After all, why should we be responsible for North Korea, which isn't part of China, while you won't let us take responsibility for Taiwan, which is an integral part of China?"

Our reply: "We will not discuss Taiwan."

Their reply: "Then we will not discuss North Korea."

All this was absolutely predictable and led nowhere. Here's how we raised the ante:

"All right. Since you have allowed North Korea to develop and build nuclear weapons, while we have prevented the much-more-technologically-advanced South Koreans from doing so, we have no choice but to level the playing field so that North Korea will not be able to threaten our allies."

Those options would include:

1. Stationing tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea ... with the option of placing them under the control of the South Koreans.

2. An embargo -- or even a blockade -- of North Korea's ports, so that China becomes the sole supplier of all goods to North Korea.

3. Holding China economically responsible by cutting back -- or cutting off -- trade between the U.S. and China.

None of these options would be tolerable to the Chinese. Putting nukes in South Korea would humiliate the Chinese leadership. Putting them under South Korean command would terrify them.

Economic sanctions against North Korea would force China, whose economy is not all that robust, to assume the huge burden of keeping North Korea afloat the way the USSR did with Cuba for so many years.

As for sanctions against China itself -- their economy has become significantly tied to trade with the U.S. America could trigger a major recession or perhaps even a depression in China, even if we couldn't persuade other economic powers to join with us.

Now, the Chinese know that none of these options would be painless for us. Stationing nukes in South Korea would provoke massive anti-American demonstrations in that country and in Japan as well.

An embargo against North Korea would be slow and sievelike, while a blockade would be causus belli and lead to confrontations between us and friendly powers.

And a cutback in U.S.-China trade would hurt our economy, too, and there are those who think our own highly-evolved economy is less resilient than China's more primitive one. (I think, however, that they are wrong.)

But even though the Chinese know that we are reluctant to use any of these options, they also know that President Bush means what he says, and, because he is his father's son, they believe he will act on his threats even if it means political risks.

And there is another factor that the Chinese leadership always has to keep in mind: The possibility that any of these events might trigger domestic disturbances, a coup, or even a revolution within China.

Dictators live in constant terror of a mob of civilians swarming through their palaces or office buildings, dragging the dictators out into the streets, and killing them.

The Chinese have very clear memories of what happened when Communism fell in Rumania. That's why they ordered soldiers to fire on their own people in Tiananmen Square.

But they'd rather avoid any possibility of this. So at some point, if they believe that we are sufficiently earnest about the urgency of neutralizing North Korea's nuclear threat, they will decide that it is in their best interests to do something about North Korea.

And here's what they'll do. They'll talk to Kim and let him know that he has two choices.

1. Kim lets the Chinese come in and take away his nukes and run his nuclear reactors and make sure he never gets nukes again. In exchange, the Chinese will make loud public guarantees that North Korea is now under their nuclear umbrella, so that there is no need for North Korea to have its own nuclear program.

2. The Chinese cut him off from all economic and military aid from any source, and let it be known that they very much want a new, anti-nuke government in Pyongyang. Kim knows he wouldn't last a week before one of his enterprising generals -- perhaps one of those already in the pay of Beijing -- decided that a change of government was in order.

One way or another, North Korea would be de-nuked. And it would all be done through diplomacy.

The reason none of this could work with Iraq is that there is no power in the Middle East comparable to China's situation vis-a-vis North Korea. We are the only nation that can put a stop to Saddam's ambitions.

But the key, of course, is that none of these conversations would take place in public. China can only bend to U.S. pressure when they are not seen to be bending to U.S. pressure.

In other words, if President Bush openly threatened China, then China could not cooperate with us without losing face -- with the risk of a coup.

That is why President Bush cannot answer his critics. There is no answer he could give that would not wreck the diplomatic process.

When an American pundit or politician criticizes President Bush for being a hypocrite or a bully because he's using diplomacy with North Korea and the threat of war with Iraq, it tells us one of two things.

Either the critic is hopelessly ignorant about geopolitical and diplomatic realities ...

Or the critic knows that President Bush cannot respond to his criticism, and therefore the critic can make political profit at the expense of American foreign policy.

In other words, those who make this particular accusation against the president are either squirrels or snakes: either chattering stupidly, or poisonously biting the President while he's trying to protect us and our friends from a serious danger.

I prefer to think that these critics simply haven't thought things through. And I'm happy to point out that few of those who have made this particular accusation are responsible officeholders.

You don't throw rocks at the guy who's trying to tame the tiger.

And what about me? Haven't I just made all those private negotiations public?

Of course not. The Chinese don't care what I say. I don't speak for the government. I don't have any contacts in the White House or the State Department.

I'm just a guy who knows how to read a map.

Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.

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