It would be ironic for isolationist Donald Trump to order a preventive attack on North Korea, but there’s a high probability that he will. He has said so himself. In April, he sent to the Korean neighborhood an aircraft carrier and its supporting warships. However, during the election campaign he stated that South Korea and Japan had sufficient forces and resources, even to develop nuclear weapons for their own defense. They didn’t need U.S. backing in a presumable confrontation with Pyongyang.
Ever since 1796, the year George Washington delivered his farewell address, there has been a clear trend in U.S. society to avoid any wars that don’t directly involve the security of the United States. In opposition to it are those who proclaim U.S. “exceptionalism.” The U.S. has emerged — they say — to defend freedom in the world. It is not a nation like all the others, they claim. Subscribers to this view range from Thomas Jefferson to John F. Kennedy.
It is not strange for Trump’s actions to contradict his beliefs. Woodrow Wilson won the elections as a pacifist who was more or less an isolationist and ended up entering World War I decisively and promoting (unsuccessfully) the League of Nations. Trump argued against the presence of American troops in Afghanistan (as Obama had) and has ended up increasing the number of soldiers in that arid and impossible terrain.
The problem is the possession of nuclear weapons. North Korea has them. It has manufactured them patiently. It has 20 or 30, according to the intelligence services and continues to produce them at the rate of five or six every year, along with a missile force increasingly more precise and powerful. If the United States withdraws its military umbrella, Japan and South Korea will develop atomic bombs; they have the technology and the economy to produce them. In that case, the possibility that Taiwan will also manufacture them cannot be ruled out.
North Korea decided to acquire nuclear arms in the 1950s, when Harry S. Truman, in the midst of the Korean War, threatened to use them if the communists didn’t agree to an armistice. At first, Kim Il Sung, grandfather to the homicidal fat man who today rules the country, asked Mao to create his program, but Mao turned him down flat. So he knocked at the Kremlin’s door. With Moscow’s help, amid the Sino-Soviet dispute, he inaugurated his first reactor in 1964.
It became no longer possible to avoid the proliferation of nuclear weapons. First came the U.S. during World War II. Later came the Soviet Union, whose spies pilfered U.S. know-how. Then came China, England and France. France contributed to Israel’s arsenal, inasmuch as the British and the Americans had denied their aid to the Jewish State. The USSR sold nuclear technology to India, to ensure that that overpopulated country would serve as a counterweight to China, then Moscow’s adversary.
In the 1990s, Pakistan, under the leadership of Dr. A. Q. Khan, a character seemingly out of a James Bond movie, developed its own weapons faced with the possibility of another clash with India (they had lost three limited wars.)
So far, nuclear weapons have served as a dissuasive element against attacks. If Ukraine had kept those it inherited from the Soviet era, if it hadn’t delivered them to Moscow via the Budapest Memorandum, signed in the mid-’90s with a “guarantee” from the U.S. and the United Kingdom, it wouldn’t have lost Crimea and the Russians wouldn’t be feeding separatism in its eastern region. In 1994, Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear force: 176 long-range missiles, 5,000 bombs and 44 bombers capable of delivering them.
How long before Iran has its own atomic bombs? Behind that country will emerge Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. (Libya was in negotiations with Pakistan at the time of the Arab Spring that took Qaddafi’s life.)
And how long before the terrorists acquire a tactical nuclear weapon slightly larger than a backpack, capable of wiping any city off the map, killing millions of people in a blinding and fleeting burst? After the end of the USSR, two of them disappeared from the Soviet arsenal and nobody ever learned if it was an accounting problem because they never existed or if some group or person stole them.
Trump today is plucking the Korean daisy. Do I attack or do I not? Do I attack with conventional weapons, saturating North Korea with dynamite and napalm, or do I recur to nuclear weapons, thus opening Pandora’s Box? Is it preferable to roar in tweets and do nothing, drawing useless imaginary red lines? It all seemed so clear and easy when I was an isolationist citizen like so many others.
But everything looks so different when you’re in the Oval Room of the White House, overwhelmed by reality. As the Spaniards say, the violin is not the same as the guitar. They’re right.
Published in Spanish by El Blog de Montaner on Sunday September 3rd, 2017