Every mushroom cloud has a silver lining


Everything old is new again. Thanks to Kim (Jong Un, not Kardashian for a change), the millennials can now experience what it is like to live in the shadow of a possible nuclear war. Not all of them, perhaps just those who live on the Korean peninsula, in Japan, or in Guam or Hawaii. So this is not as serious as two or three generations ago, when pretty much every young person around the world (not to mention people of other ages) lived their lives with a constant prospect of either being vaporised with a very little notice or trying to survive in a “Mad Max” post-apocalyptic world (sort of like today’s Venezuela, but with a worse climate). Unlike the Cold War, any nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States is bound to be limited – in part by the number of nuclear warheads in Kim’s possession – unless either or both Russia and China become involved on Kim’s side in which case it is the old World War 3 scenario all over again.

It’s a cliche by now to say that there are no good option with North Korea, with a war (nuclear and/or conventional) the worst of all. This is not quite true; a reasonably good option would be for Kim Jong Un to be overthrown by the saner elements of the regime. But it is an unlikely one, because we don’t know whether there are any saner elements in Pyongyang, and if there are, it’s almost certain they are in no position to stage any sort of a successful coup. Those who accuse Donald Trump of bringing the world to the brink of war should be forced to explain which tactics the international community should be pursuing vis-a-vis North Korea that have not been tried already and failed.

The mad and nuclear North Korea is a problem at least a quarter of a century in the making, which bedevilled four different presidents of both parties. There have been carrots and sticks, threats and incentives, aid and sanctions, international conferences and unilateral actions. The only constant throughout that time has been North Korea’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons, regardless whether great powers were mean or nice to it. Recall Bill Clinton:

“North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program. South Korea and our other allies will be better protected. The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.

“South Korea, with support from Japan and other nations, will bear most of the cost of providing North Korea with fuel to make up for the nuclear energy it is losing, and they will pay for an alternative power system for North Korea that will allow them to produce electricity while making it much harder for them to produce nuclear weapons.

“The United States and international inspectors will carefully monitor North Korea to make sure it keeps its commitments. Only as it does so will North Korea fully join the community of nations.”

That was 23 years ago, before many of The Daily Chrenk readers were even born. The succession of Kims have spent the subsequent years building the bombs as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles so as to be in a position to not merely threaten South Korea (“We will turn Seoul into a sea of fire”, also in 1994) but also Japan and the United States. As their technology gets better, they become more dangerous. In the end it is the same old problem: what do you do with a crazy motherf***er who runs a prison-state and is threatening his neighbours and beyond with devastation – and ore to the point, has the capacity to deliver on his threat?

“It should be an entirely avoidable conflict,” says the Greens’ Defence spokesman Peter Whish-Wilson. Well, hopefully it will be avoided, but avoidable? How exactly? By indulging Kim? By trying to reason with him and offer him incentives to quit? (as we have tried with him and his father for the past quarter of a century) Whish-Wilson can be blase about it; he’s not within a missile range of a nuclear armed, crazier version of Lee Rhiannon. If he was, he would probably be advocating surrender and reunification under the glorious leadership of the North Korean communist party. One way to avoid conflict is to give the other side all it wants.

Speaking of Whish-Wilson, another great old Cold War tradition that’s back is moral and political equivalence: “Most Australians see the US leader and North Korean leader, both of them, mad as cut snakes… It’s not helpful in the world we live in now when World War III could be declared on Twitter by the US president.” I know that Trump is not most people’s cup of tea – he certainly is not mine – but to pretend that somehow a bloodthirsty communist dictator of a bizarro hermit kingdom is somehow the same as an elected president of one of the world’s largest and oldest liberal democracies is stupid even for a Greens senator.

North Korea is not the victim here, and it does not have any legitimate interests that are being unfairly impinged on, unless you really think that all states, dictatorships and democracies, free and unfree, are essentially the same, in which case I’m sorry for your damaged moral compass. Pretty much no one in the world, except for Kim, wants North Korea to have nuclear capacity; Kim is too erratic and troublesome even for China and Russia, though not being directly threatened by him they can afford to be more blase about it.

No one wants another war erupting out of the Korean Peninsula; the likely loss of life involved would range from terrible to catastrophic, depending on the type of weapons used or the length of the conflict. But let us not pretend that letting Kim be and letting him keep on expanding his deadly arsenal, while becoming more bellicose at the head of the worst country in the world, is somehow a great and safe long term prospect for the region and the world. We are all hoping for an act of God, which would somehow defuse the situation, but Kim is relatively young and quite possibly irrational, believing all his own bullshit. We have to face the fact that it is more likely than not that something will eventually go wrong in that neck of woods. I wish North Korea was more like the Eastern Europe circa 1988 with an increasingly demoralised and liberal leadership; but sadly it’s more like the Soviet Union circa 1950, a heavily armed one man state, possibly even more unbalanced than Joseph Stalin. Pray and hope for peace, by all means, but the least anyone can do is stop excusing Kim or blaming the United States for the situation. Though that again brings back memories of my childhood. Welcome to the Cold War, dear millennials.

(Note: the title, alas, not mine but shamelessly borrowed from, if I recall correctly, an Owl City song lyric.)