The era of the United States as global policeman is coming to an end
Every day – often every hour – brings news of troubling developments on the Korean peninsula. As of this writing, a new report by American intelligence agencies suggests that North Korea may have successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead sufficient to allow it to be installed on a short- or medium-range missile. At the same time, North Korea has been threatening to test-fire a long-range missile, which it claims (but experts doubt) is capable of reaching the continental United States. The launch was expected on Wednesday, but for some reason did not occur. It is important to separate the two issues, however: while there is widespread concern about North Korea’s nuclear capability, opposition to the missile test has to do with the violation of neighboring airspace in contravention of international law, not the likelihood that the missile itself will be nuclear-tipped. It won’t be.
Still, there is no question that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are behind the crisis atmosphere. In March, this author wrote an article asking the question, “Should we be concerned that North Korea will use its nuclear weapons?” The conclusion was that while the North Korean leadership is unpredictable, it is not irrational, and certainly not insane. This crisis, which Kim Jong-un has skillfully manufactured, has more to do with consolidating his own internal power and extorting foreign aid than it does with any intention to initiate a nuclear, or even conventional, war. From his perspective, he is acting rationally, even predictably. A month later, this author’s opinion remains the same, and even draws confirmation from the fact that war-panic appears to be greater in the United States than it is in South Korea, which has more direct experience with North Korean bluster. South Koreans are simply not rushing south, crowding foreign embassies for visas, or stocking up on food and water. The critical question for Americans concerns the role our government should be playing in the crisis. But before we get to that, a short review of the history is in order.
Korea Since World War II: A Thumbnail Sketch
At the end of the Second World War, the Korean peninsula, which had been a colonial possession of the Japanese Empire, was divided into two temporary trusteeships. The line of demarcation between the zones was the 38th Parallel; the southern zone was occupied by the United States, the northern by the Soviet Union. Plans for free elections were drawn up in the new United Nations, but the Soviets balked, as they had in Eastern Europe. In 1948, the United States went ahead with elections and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was born. Later that year, the Soviets responded by establishing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) under Joseph Stalin’s handpicked strongman, Kim Il-sung. A year later, in October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was declared under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Communist China would go on to be North Korea’s chief defender and ally.
The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when North Korea, with material support from the Soviets and Chinese, attacked South Korea across the 38th Parallel. The Soviets had not believed that the United States would intervene, but they were wrong. Almost immediately, the defense of South Korea became a United Nations operation with the United States in the lead. North Korea’s initial thrust was soon repulsed, and by October 1950 the Allies had captured the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, prompting the Chinese to intervene on behalf of North Korea. Much of the fighting that winter was conducted in the mountainous north, and it was brutal. By spring, the Chinese intervention had forced the Allies back to the 38th Parallel.
The last two years of the war amounted to a bloody stalemate, with little territory taken or lost by either side. In July 1953, the two sides concluded an armistice – essentially a cease-fire – that included the establishment of a two mile-wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) bisecting the peninsula. The cease-fire persists to this day, as does the formal state of war between North and South Korea. For 60 years, the United States has maintained a military presence in South Korea, most of it along the DMZ. The 28,500 US troops there are more of a symbolic than a fighting force. They would be overwhelmed by a North Korean conventional ground attack. The real American muscle in East Asia is based in Japan, home of the US Seventh Fleet, several Air Force squadrons, and the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force.
The Korean War cost over 1.2 million lives, including hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians on both sides, as well as 34,000 Americans. The fragile peace was broken by skirmishes here and there, but in 60 years, serious conflict has never resumed. South Korea went on to become a vibrant democracy and wealthy industrial power. The North, following Kim Il-sung’s ideology of Juche – which stresses political, economic, and military independence – withdrew behind a wall of paranoia, economic inefficiency, the cult of personality, and military domination. North Korea became the first dynastic regime in the communist world when Kim Jong-il took power following the death of his father, Kim Il-sung. And, of course, upon the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, his son, Kim Jong-un, became the Supreme Leader (as the North Korean Head of State is officially called). Today, North Korea is among the poorest nations on earth; a large percentage of the population of 24 million lives at the subsistence level or worse, and the government’s policy of “army first” means that much of the food that is produced is consumed by the more than one million members of the Korean People’s Army.
“My favorite picture of the Korean Peninsula was taken by a U.S. spy satellite on one night in early 2006,” writes commentator Jed Babbin. “It shows South Korea ablaze with lights in every city and town. In the North, only the capital of Pyongyang is lit. The rest of the country is pitch black. Most North Koreans live cold, hungry, and in the dark, but their government lives well.” Babbin makes a very important point about this entire crisis. North Korean elites, especially the inner circle around Kim Jong-un, lead lives of great luxury. Kim Jong-il was said to have had a DVD collection of some 20,000 Hollywood movies. He enjoyed custom-made Italian suits and shoes. He had luxury cars, boats, even trains, and was the single biggest customer of Hennessy cognac, spending up to $800,000 a year on the stuff. The North Korean leadership is very well acquainted with the West, and it knows that war with the United States would mean the loss of their luxuries, their privileges, and – in all likelihood – their very lives.
What Should America’s Role Be in the North Korean Crisis?
The question of what role the United States should play in the Korean crisis only begs the larger question of what role we should play in the world at large. Prior to World War II, the American people had, for the most part, taken seriously George Washington’s warning to avoid foreign entanglements, military adventures and standing armies. After the war, we ignored both Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned about a growing “military-industrial complex” that would drive our foreign policy for decades. Since 1945, the United States has built a global empire of over 700 military bases. Our navy patrols the seven oceans; our air force can strike anywhere within a matter of hours; our intelligence apparatus scans every email and phone call on the planet. We spend more on ‘national security’ than much of the rest of the world combined, and ten times more than our nearest global military rival, China. Worse yet, we have been involved in scores of armed conflicts around the globe.
The United States considers itself a peace-loving nation, but the decades since the Second World War have contradicted that self-image. And as we’ve seen time and again, our modern penchant for intervention often winds up costing us dearly later. One example was the American-aided overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected president of Iran, in 1953 – an act which put Reza Pahlavi (the Shah) in power. The people of Iran never forgot our betrayal, and we began to reap the whirlwind in 1979. Another example is our arming of the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1980s; the Taliban’s war against the Soviets was a training ground for Osama bin Laden, who later used Afghanistan as his base to form Al-Qaeda and plot attacks on the United States, including the September 11 attacks.
That said, the situation on the Korean peninsula the United States is unique. North Korea was the aggressor in 1950 and it threatens to become the aggressor once again. In the intervening years, the United States has not sought to destabilize or otherwise interfere with North Korean sovereignty. We have sponsored sanctions against North Korea for violations of human rights and international law, but those sanctions were formally undertaken by the United Nations and agreed to by the international community. Moreover, we have longstanding and solemn commitments to come to the aid of South Korea and Japan if they are attacked. We have a moral responsibility to keep those commitments, if it becomes necessary.
Of course, there is speculation that the United States might launch a pre-emptive attack on North Korea. Not only would such an attack be foolish; it would be an act of original aggression and a violation of just war principles. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in 2002, during the prelude to the Iraq War, the “concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. One cannot simply say that the catechism does not legitimize the war,” he continued, “but it is true that the catechism has developed a doctrine that, on one hand, does not exclude the fact that there are values and peoples that must be defended in some circumstances; on the other hand, it offers a very precise doctrine on the limits of these possibilities."
What are those limits? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2302-2317), there are four:
- The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- There must be serious prospects of success;
- The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
The Catechism goes on to say “the evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” At the time of the Iraq War, some commentators tried to twist that sentence to justify pre-emptive war as an exercise in prudential judgment. But the text doesn’t say that public officials can deploy prudential judgment for the purpose of doing away with the principles, only for evaluating them in the light of specific circumstances. The just war teaching never assumes that an original act of aggression is a moral act. The teaching begins with the assumption that an act of aggression has already taken place against the one consulting the teaching. Furthermore, the Catechism, quoting Gaudium et Spes, says “governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.” There doesn’t appear to be any room there for a pre-emptive attack, because if the opposing party (in this case North Korea) has not yet attacked, there is still time to work for peace.
Thomas Jefferson once said our goal should be “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” In that same vein, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, remarked, “the American people must be content to recommend the cause of human progress by the wisdom with which they should exercise the powers of self-government, forbearing at all times, and in every way, from foreign alliances, intervention, and interference.” Once the current crisis on the Korean peninsula abates, the United States would do well to insist that our allies take up the burdens of their own defense. Certainly, the South Koreans are wealthy enough to defend themselves. They have twice the population as the North and all the economic power of a modern industrial state. The same goes for Japan; and the nations of the NATO alliance; and our allies in the Middle East and elsewhere. The era of the United States as global policeman is coming to an end, a casualty of economic reality, moral exhaustion and war weariness. In giving up our badge, perhaps we can retrieve our own heritage.