The other menace

Posted: Mar 28, 2003 12:00 AM

Throughout most of human history, most people have had to live on the brink of disaster. Harsh weather, disease and scarcity of food could all snuff out a life in short order. And just as common as these devils was the certainty of human depravity. Armies would sweep in killing all the men and enslaving all the women and children (when they were lucky) in most places and most times. For a gripping account of the fall of Jerusalem in the first century, read the Book of Lamentations.

The idea of peace and security -- of living your life well-fed, well-rested, healthy and free from fear of invasion or war -- is a very new concept, but one with which Americans and Europeans are, for understandable reasons, reluctant to part. The people who grab our chins and force us to face reality -- the Churchills, Bushes and Blairs of the world -- are rewarded with some degree of hatred by the self-deluded.

We -- i.e., most of the nations of the free world -- are now engaged in an act of prudent self-defense. And while the world, and particularly the Iraqi people, will be dramatically safer after the war is successfully concluded, it will not be safe. There are other serious menaces out there, and one in particular has been metastasizing because we've chosen to ignore it in the past.

That menace is North Korea. As Joshua Muravchik details in the March issue of Commentary, two U.S. administrations attempted to appease North Korea -- with appalling results. In 1985, under pressure, North Korea signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Within 18 months, signatories are required to sign a "safeguards agreement" with the International Atomic Energy Agency, permitting inspections. North Korea stalled. It was given an additional 18 months. It then demanded, in exchange for signing, that the United States and South Korea agree to turn the whole peninsula into a nuclear free zone.

Meanwhile, North Korea was shutting down its reactors for two and three months at a stretch, presumably to extract nuclear fuel, which is used to make bombs. After two more years of delay, the North declared it would sign if 1) the peninsula were declared a nuclear-free zone; 2) the U.S./South Korea military exercises ("Team Spirit") were canceled; and 3) the United States signed a pledge never to attack North Korea.

The United States objected to these terms because our nuclear deterrent served the same function in Korea as our "nuclear umbrella" served in Europe -- to serve as a counterweight against the overwhelming conventional superiority on the other side. Nevertheless, the administration of George H.W. Bush capitulated, and in 1991 withdrew all nuclear weapons from South Korea.

Did this cause the North Koreans to cooperate? Hardly. They now insisted that they would not permit inspections of their nuclear facilities until the withdrawal had been total, and then demanded that the United States permit inspections of our military facilities in the South. The Americans agreed to this, too -- and the following year cancelled the Team Spirit exercises.

South Korea, meanwhile, signed a wide-ranging agreement with the North promising aid, agreeing to scrap any nuclear or chemical programs of its own and agreeing to a non-aggression pact. And yet, Muravchik observes, "still North Korea had not signed a ‘safeguards agreement.'"

The story only gets worse with the advent of the Clinton administration, which, in the words of a State Department official, "walked (sic) softly and carried a big carrot." Clinton sent Jimmy Carter to grovel before Kim Il Sung, and we signed a "framework agreement." The North ignored it and has now announced that is has nuclear weapons.

So when Iraq is free, we must turn our attention eastward. Only the most rigid sanctions -- strictly adhered to by all including China -- can hope to topple this regime. But that's a tall order. We are faced with a bigger problem in North Korea than in Iraq because we allowed it to fester. The solution is not altogether clear, but it cannot be further denied.