Pushback on North Korea as Poster Child for Iran

Yesterday I quoted a reader in Texas, who said that even if Iran's leaders weren't so suicidally irrational as to launch a nuclear strike on Israel, their sheer possession of nuclear weapons would change political dynamics in a profound way. He used the example of North Korea: a "failed state" if ever there was one, but a state that could resist outside pressure because of its nuclear potential. He said: "Any serious observer has to acknowledge that the possession of nuclear weapons has made it infinitely easier for North Korea to maintain the horrific status quo within its borders."

A large number of readers wrote in to disagree. A few samples:

I can't let this particular statement by your correspondent [the one quoted above] go by...

I like to think I'm serious, and I don't acknowledge it.  The rest of the world did nothing about the horrendous conditions in North Korea for the 50 years prior to them possibly obtaining a nuclear weapon, or whatever nuclear device they actually have, and their nuclear program has changed nothing. North Korea's program is a possible proliferation problem (as Iran's program could be) but I think it has had zero effect on their ability to continue their terrible internal policies. It is Korea's conventional missiles and artillery, and vast supply of potential refugees, which have kept outside powers from intervening.

I think the real problem here is that Israel's long-term strategic position is bad, and the Israelis aren't willing to use their short- or medium-term advantages as bargaining chips to improve it.  As an American, I am hardly in a position to criticize short-term thinking, but it is hard to imagine how a strike on Iran could have any lasting benefit for Israel. How much is it worth to postpone an existential threat for five years?  It could be worth a lot if you are planning to spend that five years encouraging your population to emigrate, but I don't think that is the idea.

For the record, the last paragraph of this note expresses more concisely what I've been trying to say on the Israel-Iran issue. From another reader who objects to the Korean analogy:

The implication... that the stagnant stalemate in North Korea was a product of their nuclear status belies the fact that they were without such means for more than 50 years after the armistice that still holds... and that the resolution of the conflict via military action was deemed far too costly and uncertain by the United States and its allies - including, if I am not mistaken, by the South Koreans, too.

And:

Your reader seems to forget that North Korea has engaged in repeated acts of terrorism worthy of sparking a legitimate war against them long before they somewhat successfully detonated a nuclear weapon in 2006.  Here are but a few of many examples:

- 1983 - North Korean agents attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan in Burma.  Chun survives, but multiple members of his cabinet are killed
- 1988 - North Korean agents plant a bomb on Korean Air Flight 858 killing 115 people
- 1976 - North Korean soldiers brutally murder two American officers with an axe in the DMZ, nearly igniting the second Korean War.

At no point during these times was North Korea anywhere close to developing a nuclear weapon, much less possessing one, yet their regime was in no danger of being toppled.

The reason for their continued existence isn't nuclear weapons, it's because of China (are you prepared to fight another war with them to end North Korea's vile regime?  I'm certainly not.) and an all-too-understandable desire from South Koreans to not launch another devastating war on their peninsula resulting in the deaths of millions of their countrymen (both Northern and Southern).  Remember, the Korean War - which was entirely conventional - is estimated to have killed 2 million Korean, or nearly 7% of the population.  One need not nuclear weapons to try avoid repeating this horrible tragedy at all costs; hence why North Korea continues to get away with what it does. 

I'm sorry, but using North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons to demonstrate the futility of trying to contain Iran is a bad example. 

One more, in response to the reader-in-Texas's claim that "the continued existence of the North Korean regime... represents one of the greatest moral failures in global affairs since probably World War II":

In a way, these kind of guys worry me more than the true warmongers.  These "Humanitarian Interventionists" who seem to believe that the world could be made a better place if a coalition of self-appointed judges were free to ignore international laws and convention and any concept of national sovereignty and wage war against any nation they deemed a "moral failure".  Oh boy.  I'm sure THAT would lead to a better world.

We have arrived at a point in human history where we recognize that wars are destructive and wasteful, and are to be avoided.  Under the current operating principles, the only justification for war is in self-defense if attacked or if decided upon by the United Nations.  Sadly, the United States disregarded this principle and unilaterally attacked Iraq in what was unfortunately described as a "preemptive" war. Now that dog is truly out of the kennel.

The simple, and to me, obvious truth is that STARTING wars is always wrong.  Remember when Iraq invaded Kuwait?  Or when North Korea invaded South Korea?  They were wrong, and the world came together to roll them back.  This is a simple principle, and one the human race will become increasingly dependent upon if we are to survive just our second industrialized century....
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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