Posted : 2012-08-02 17:43
Updated : 2012-08-02 17:43

Playing the nuclear card

By Donald Kirk

North Korea plays the nuclear card every chance it gets. Wherever you go in the North, you get hints of the country’s reliance upon nuclear weaponry as the ultimate ``defense” against the United States.

Your guides don’t talk about it all the time, just at propitious moments such as during a visit to the North Korean side of the line at Panmunjom or in a tour of the Great Fatherland Liberation War Museum, where we hear about the North’s heroic victory over the Japanese in 1945 and then over the Americans and ``south” Korea in 1953. (Style note: North Korean propaganda calls for a lower case ``s” in ``south Korea,” never ``South Korea.”)

The argument is, if the U.S. and South Korea invade, then the North will strike back with missiles carrying nuclear warheads. For North Korea, nuclear prowess forms the ultimate defense.

U.S. politicians, however, would prefer to forget North Korea’s nuclear program. They don’t take it all that seriously. That’s understandable. Away from seminars and symposiums, you don’t hear too many people in Seoul worrying much about North Korea’s nuclear program either. Somehow it’s viewed as almost a distraction from much greater concerns about the economy, finding jobs and making money.

I tried to explain all that in an off moment with one of the minders who was tailing me during my visit to North Korea. We were sitting atop some rocky outcropping on the lower slopes of Mt. Geumgang when I finally got the chance for a private conversation with him.

He told me North Korea needed missiles and nukes to strike the United States if the Americans invaded. He seemed to think the threat of North Korea’s nukes would give the Americans second thoughts about attacking his country. He didn’t understand what I was talking about when I told him I didn’t think people in Seoul and Washington were all that anxious to wage another Korean War.

For American politicos, the nuclear program that really counts is that of Iran. Mitt Romney, who’s got the Republican presidential nomination all wrapped up, played his own version of the nuclear card this week in Israel. Basically, he told the Israelis, if you want to stage a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, we’re with you in your right to defend your country against a clear and present danger.

It would be comforting to assume that talk about nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea was hot air. Iran doesn’t actually have any nuclear warheads though it’s built up its program to the point at which it could probably become a nuclear weapons power in the next few years.

Romney plays upon Israel’s fears for one reason. He sees a seemingly strong position on Iran’s nuclear program as crucial for the support of American neo-conservatives. By giving an appearance of siding totally with the fiercely conservative Israeli leadership, he believes he can win campaign donations and votes from the historically liberal American Jewish community.

If that strategy makes political sense, then, where does that leave Romney when it comes to policy on North Korea? While the Obama administration has talked tough in defense of the South against the North, Romney has had little to say on the subject. We may be sure he would mouth defiance against North Korea when called upon to do so, but it’s not likely that he’ll be visiting Seoul, going to Panmunjom and waving a rhetorical fist at the North in the run-up to the U.S. election in November..

True, American neo-conservatives all urge a hard and firm line against North Korea, but they’re not going to suggest the United States bait Pyongyang with talk about a strike at the North’s nuclear complex. Even if North Korea for the third time tests a nuclear device, it would be difficult to make that a pretext or a rationale for striking back at the North.

The desire to stay out of the war doesn’t mean we should discount North Korea’s threats entirely as rhetorical rubbish. It’s hard to give much credence to a lot of what’s put out by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, but I’m inclined to accept at face value a Korean Central News Agency story mocking speculation about a change in policy.

If Kim Jong-un has a different style from that of his late father, that doesn’t mean he’s pursuing a different policy vis-à-vis the U.S. or South Korea. In fact, he needs to show he’s tough in order to win acceptance from his own people.

Would Mitt Romney as president, then, rise to South Korea’s defense in a showdown against the North with the same enthusiasm with which he appeals to American neo-cons on Iran? For that matter, what level of priority would President Obama give to defending South Korea?

These are questions we would hope we will never have to answer. Still, Romney’s decision to visit Israel way ahead of South Korea and then to talk about committing the U.S. to fight for Israel if the Israelis strike Iran represents political opportunism at its most obvious.

On his way to Israel, Romney stopped by London and made disparaging remarks about the British preparations for the Olympics. The London tabloids headlines read, ``Mitt the twit,” but he was hardly concerned about losing the British vote. Presumably he’s not too worried about the Korean vote either ― though George W. Bush as president did place Iran and North Korea at opposite poles of “an axis of evil” 10 years ago.

Columnist Donald Kirk,, has much more to say about North Korea in his book, ``Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.” He can be reached at
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