Marc Carlisle: Want war with N. Korea? It’s been on hold since 1953 |

Marc Carlisle: Want war with N. Korea? It’s been on hold since 1953

Marc Carlisle

Trick question: Of the three nations in the President’s “axis of evil,” with which one is the United States at war? No, it’s not Iraq. Our disagreement with Iran is, so far, just a war of words. Officially, we’re at war only with North Korea, a conflict now in its sixth decade, a war on hold since the armistice of 1953. Peace talks to end that war have been fruitless, and tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers remain along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating north from south. Since the armistice, South Korea has emerged as one of Asia’s economic “tigers,” while in the north, megalomania hardly begins to describe the rule of Kim Jong Il. Under his rule, however, North Korea has developed multiple nuclear weapons, as well as the capability to deliver those weapons to targets in the south, such as the capital of Seoul, or those thousands of U.S. servicemen.

For years, the U.S. has tried and failed to cut a deal with North Korea to eliminate its nuclear program. Finally, last week, the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea reached an agreement with North Korea. Under that agreement, North Korea has 60 days to start disabling its nuclear weapons capability, and 60 days to begin to allow international inspection of the power plants, test sites and research facilities that make up its weapons program. In exchange, North Korea will receive 50,000 tons of fuel oil, with a promise of another 950,000 tons if they actually disable their nuclear reactor and dispose of their nuclear weapons. So, North Korea gets fuel oil it can’t afford and very badly needs in exchange for a commitment to start doing something about its nuclear weapons. If past practice is any indicator, North Korea is not likely to do anything and will stiff the U.S. and its partners. But there’s more to this agreement than meets the eye, several reasons to call this a landmark deal. Take, for example, the role of China. In the 1950s, Chinese soldiers fought with the North Koreans against the U.S. and the south. Apparently, China has now chosen to side with the U.S., not as brothers in arms against North Korea, but at least in common cause to eliminate a nuclear wild card in its neighborhood. For decades, China as well as Russia sought to buy favor with poor countries, and either could provide the 50,000 tons of fuel oil to North Korea unilaterally to curry favor with Kim Jong Il.

Under this agreement, those two countries will still ante up the fuel oil, but to curry favor with the U.S. Those two countries and the U.S. negotiators knew full well that the U.S. Congress would never agree to pay for fuel oil for North Korea, so China will, no doubt with the understanding that the U.S. will continue to do nothing about the massive trade imbalance that very much favors China. Russia will pay as well, with the understanding that the U.S. will ease off the war of words with Iran, Russia’s ally in the Gulf. In this roundabout way, this deal makes a shooting war between Iran and the U.S. less likely. Conversely, this agreement does make the chances of a shooting war between the U.S. and North Korea that much more likely. If North Korea does nothing during the next 60 days, the President will have his cause for war should he decide to take on the only member of the axis of evil that actually has a nuclear capability. The U.S. surely knows where the nuclear weapons are in North Korea, having had nearly 60 years to spy on a country a quarter the size of Iraq and one-tenth the size of Iran. If North Korea fails to cooperate, the U.S. might choose to bomb any and all targets that are part of the nuclear weapons program. That would neutralize the immediate threat, and by kicking the North Korean hornet’s nest, scare Japan into increased military spending, something the U.S. wants in order to reduce its troop commitments and spending in the region.

All international agreements fall into one of two categories, either “make a deal or else” or “make a deal and enjoy the reward.” We’re already at war with North Korea so there’s no “or else” possible, and an agreement whereby a nuclear threat is eliminated by fuel oil paid for by someone else will have students of American diplomacy agog and perhaps aghast for decades to come. Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at

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