Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Keep an eye on nuclear North Korea

Morgan Liddick

Remember North Korea? The guys who got 24/7 coverage for weeks by threatening to blow up the world — before we were sidetracked by the definitely-not-Islamic terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon? Pyongyang still matters, because it is an object lesson in how our foreign policy is heading toward failure like the Titanic toward that iceberg. Two news items of the past week indicate how damaging the crash is likely to be.

Kim Jong-Un, the Looney-Toon leader of North Korea, is still threatening to use his missiles, which creates profound disquiet in his southern neighbors. This is likely one reason we have failed in our efforts to persuade the South Korean government to renew a treaty that bans them from enriching and reprocessing their own nuclear fuel. They recapitulate all the best intentions: reduction of dangerous levels of spent fuel in their storage facilities, control over their nuclear fuel cycle, more closely associate their fuel with the new generation of reactors they are designing.

Unnoted by their negotiators is another truth: these technologies are also used to produce nuclear weapons, which is why the same arguments are used by the Iranians and North Koreans to fend off restrictions and inspections.

Why would South Korea be interested in developing a nuclear deterrent, as some of its politicians have urged? See “North Korea,” above. Since the international community has resorted to little more than hand-wringing in response to Kim’s martial threats, perhaps the south has calculated that they require something a bit more … vigorous. As a consequence, they have refused to be bound by the restrictions of their 1972 treaty with the United States, suggesting instead that the issue be revisited in 2016.

Our response is instructive. Secretary of State John Kerry has wagged his finger, sternly admonishing the Park Guen-hye government that “we are at a delicate moment” in our negotiations with both North Korea and their henchmen in Tehran, and Seoul’s intransigence is likely to make things more difficult. The response so far has been a polite but pointed “tough luck.”

This matters because our inability to rein in our allies — to say nothing of our pathetic failure to address the megalomaniacal strivings of Pyongyang — tells the world that we are not serious, and may safely be ignored. Our Secretary of State only makes this perception of irrelevance worse when he prattles about our unwillingness to tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of the Kim family. Since they already possess these weapons, his bluster only reinforces our apparent impotence.

This message is already gleefully embraced in Tehran, which has been working hand-in-glove with the North Koreans for more than a decade; its mullahs will proceed accordingly.

If we cannot, and others will not, address the existential question of nuclear proliferation both in Asia and the Middle East, expect a nuclear-armed South Korea, Japan and Taiwan within a few years. The Philippines may or may not follow, but Tehran, relying on its relationship with North Korea, will certainly move quickly to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The Saudis, Turks and probably the Egyptians will follow suit. Two tinderbox areas of the world will thus be primed, ready and able to proceed to Armageddon. Well done, all.

The second example of our foreign policy’s incompetence is the recent announcement that the Assad government of Syria has used chemical weapons against its opponents. Long touted as a “red line” that the US government could not accept being crossed, the use of nerve agents, probably Sarin, has now been proven. What will we do? Don’t hold your breath.

Both these situations create a picture of a U.S. government long on lecturing and finger — wagging, but short on the will to protect our national interests. A government enamored of pontificating, but unwilling to act, if action be unpopular — even just a little.

This will not serve in the world in which we live — a world of malefactors, cheaters and those who do not wish us well. In the real world we need, instead of reliance on the kindness of strangers, a foreign policy that is robust, forthright and willing to adhere to announced precepts and enforce penalties.

If we “cannot abide” North Korea having nuclear weapons, what will we do now that they clearly have them? If the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad is a “bright red line,” what will we do now that the line has been crossed? In both situations, the time for talk is over. It’s now time to put up, or shut up.

I wonder which message Barack Obama will send to the nihilists spreading across our world? I hope, though it seems implausible, that his response will have our interests at heart. I really do.

Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. Email him at

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