WASHINGTON--Happy New Year. The most dangerous epoch in history--it lasted less than 20 years--may have been in the 14th century, when bubonic plague killed more than half the populations of Europe and Asia. But judging from the way 2002 ended, with North Korea swiftly elbowing aside other menaces competing for America's attention, 2003 may usher in an era of potential lethality without precedent in seven centuries.
Granted, the epidemic of Spanish influenza at the end of the First World War killed more people in six months (25 million, of whom 550,000 were Americans) than the war did in four years. But the last century's prolific human killers--Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge--could be eclipsed by today's.
The clash between science and religion was supposed to be a defining characteristic of the modern age. But today's distinctive terror is modern science in the service of religious fanatics--or, in North Korea, of fanatics drunk on the dregs of the pseudo religion of scientific socialism imagined by a 19th-century German exile toiling in the British Museum. Talk about globalization.
The AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa and Eurasia could soon seem slow, even minor compared to the ravages of an engineered virus spread by terrorists. India and Pakistan remain at nuclear daggers-drawn. Perhaps the best news this year could bring would be of a revolution in Iran, proving that a nation with a substantial middle class will not be ruled by medieval clerics. Until then, Iran progresses, with Russian help, toward becoming a nuclear power. Iran understands what the North Korean crisis makes clear.
Secretary of State Colin Powell spent the last Sunday of 2002 spreading a self-refuting message. Making the rounds of the television interview programs, he insisted that North Korea's aggressive dash toward possession of more than just a few nuclear weapons is not a crisis. The fact that North Korea's government, the full loopiness of which is difficult to estimate, has nuclear arms to supplement the world's third-largest standing army means that the world's only superpower has not much more immediate influence on North Korea than Denmark does. Hence Powell's urgent denials of urgency.
And hence Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld's statement, in response to a reporter's question, that the U.S. military is still capable of implementing strategic doctrine--of fighting two major regional conflicts, as in Iraq and on the Korean peninsula. It was necessary to deterrence for him to say this.
However, South Korea's capital, Seoul, is as close to the demilitarized zone--35 miles--as Baltimore is to Washington. More than a million of North Korea's 1.2 million soldiers--three times more than Iraq has--are near the DMZ, and many of North Korea's 12,000 artillery systems can strike Seoul. Today the U.S. Army numbers 484,551, down from 710,821 in 1991, when 540,000 U.S. troops were assembled for the task of expelling Iraq from Kuwait.
``Korea,'' Gen. Thomas Schwartz, departing commander of the 37,000 U.S. troops there, said this year, ``remains a place where U.S. forces could almost instantaneously become engaged in a high-intensity war involving significant ground, air and naval forces. Such a war would cause loss of life numbering in the hundreds of thousands and cause billions of dollars in property destruction.''
There are essentially three U.S. options toward North Korea. Each is alarming.
One is a pre-emptive strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities, if we can be sure, which we cannot be, that such an attack will not provoke a southward military spasm. A second is severe economic pressure on a starving country, including interdiction of North Korea's principal export (ballistic missiles)--a risky wager that North Korea will collapse peacefully.
A third option is to extend to North Korea the nuclear power's entitlement--to the wary respect expressed by a policy of nuclear deterrence. The message that this entitlement would communicate, a message subversive of attempts to stem the nuclear proliferation, is a truth that South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and others may eventually act upon: Possession of such weapons changes everything.
One thing will not change. This year the international left, and its American fellow travelers, will continue their descent to the moral level of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, the learned imbecile who said that of course the Holocaust was bad, but so is mechanized agriculture. The left, its anti-capitalism transmogrified into anti-Americanism expressed in the argot of anti-globalization, will repeat that of course Iraq and North Korea are dangerous, but so are McDonald's and Microsoft. Happy New Year.