How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb

A long post describing why some kind of intervention, military or diplomatic, is desperately needed re: North Korea, and why we should avoid conspiracy theories on the subject:

Across social media, I have seen two recurrent themes when people discuss the North Korean debacle. The first is that they do not understand why the White House is escalating things now—i.e., many are unsure what the point is. The second theme is an answer to the first, namely the suggestion that Trump and the administration are racketing up to war in order to improve his approval ratings. This theory tends to point toward Syria, and the suspect (short-term) boost in his ratings—although, in reality, said boost was more like a blip, and seems to have had little lasting power. Regardless, this line of thought suggests that Trump does not actually care about Korea, nor do his generals, nor does his State Department—they are, instead, inventing a crisis for no discernable reason other than self-interest.

I can’t speak to what the Administration is trying to accomplish. Honestly, I’m not even sure they know what they’re trying to accomplish. However, I do want to address and push back against those who do not see North Korea as a crisis point and who are suspicious of the sudden interest paid to them now.

Most of my followers do not remember a time before the Korean War. Indeed, almost all of us have spent our entire lives with the reality of the North Korean dictatorship, to the point that it seems a natural part of geopolitics and world affairs. From movies that make fun of the regime—there have been many—to jokes about the differences between “good” and “bad” or “naughty” Korean, we can see that people have never acknowledge any potent reason for Americans to worry about the situation. Or, rather, we can see that the combination of North Korea’s normalcy (given that we have always been at war with North Korea, but have not paid the price for said war in generations) and the inconsequential stakes (what’s the worst they can do to us, after all) leads to a feeling of disinterested or humorous engagement with the North Koreans.

This laissez-faire mindset concerning North Korea, so thoroughly entrenched in American society for decades, is both wrongheaded and dangerous.

First, I am distressed that many of the same people who have posted so emotionally about the horrors of the Syrian Civil War, the kind of people who post “Never again” with deep earnestness, are now so sure that the Administration could have no reason to despise North Korea’s government. In simple terms, the North Korean government with its dictatorial withholding of basic human rights from its population of over twenty million people is the longest lasting fully authoritarian state in world history and likely one of, if not the single, worst crimes against humanity ever. When we read or see accounts of people living in this truly police state, you must—or at least, I must—realize that this is a degree of dehumanization rarely seen on such a large scale anywhere else in history. The causalities may be lower than those caused by Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan, I don’t know, but the degree to which the government controls each and every facet of everyday life is chilling and without precedent. There has never been so effective a police state with such a degree of success in operating its authoritarian power structure for so long ever before. We are numb to this fact because it has always been a part of life for us, but when you judge the US for not intervening in World War II sooner, for not attending to the Holocaust, for not stopping whatever pet human rights disaster you happen to be passionate about, realize that we have all accepted and been silent in the face of true and prolonged evil. The United States has allowed the continuance of a corrupt, despotic, demonic state for over half a century.

There have been many pragmatic reasons for doing so, of course. The USSR and China limited our ability to intervene, as did the apathy expressed worldwide and at home during and after our stint in armed conflict. Moreover, since North Korea acquired nuclear technology, we have felt unable to do anything for fear that it might cause imminent and unimaginable destruction in South Korea. These are legitimate reasons for failing to act, I think, but they do not mitigate or erase the immorality of inaction; they should not allow us to feel righteous or accomplished, as we have allowed this denial of basic human rights and basic human needs to continue.

The situation at present, however, is due to change. While North Korea has repeatedly failed in its missile launch attempts, eventually they will have the technology to threaten major cities in China, Japan, and someday the United States. When that day comes, military action will become totally impossible, and diplomatic action even more meaningless. At present, the causalities from an attack by North Korea would be without precedent; in ten or twenty years at the most, such an attack could be worldwide and catastrophic—a word that hardly does justice to the potential destruction. It is not a matter of “if” the North Koreans will develop the technology for long-range nuclear missiles. It is a question of “when”. Moreover, it is not currently within our knowhow to stop such a missile as it approaches—Reagan’s dream of a Star Wars–like system to intercept incoming missiles remains a dream, and it likely will long past the North Korean invent of nuclear ICBMs.

Continuing to avoid action, as the United States has since the end of the Korean War, would be to voluntarily allow such a disaster to come to pass. Because once the North Koreans have the ability to nuke a major US city, the chances of such an attack likely grow toward inevitable the longer our dysfunctional relationship and their governmental instability continue. This is not to mention the risks involved if their government crumbles.

Simply put, we are running out of time to disarm North Korea. Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama have failed us in this key way, and the longer we wait, the greater the chances of nuclear holocaust become. This does not mean I endorse the Trump administration’s actions thus far. But I do think we, the public, misread them when we continue under the assumption that there is no reason to rush a solution on the Korean peninsula.

Indeed, there is every reason.

And so, while I do not trust Trump or his team any more than his worst critics, I do understand the rhetoric used by Tillerson and Trump when they talk about how American patience has run out and when they admit that a largescale war may be coming. Because unless we do something soon, even if that something is indescribably destructive, if we fail to act, someday soon the North Koreans will be able to hold our country and the world hostage. They will have the power to initiate widespread destruction, destruction on a scale inconceivable since the fall of the Soviet Union: Except unlike the Soviets, the North Koreans have proven themselves to be mercurial, unreliable, and—frankly—irrational. Simply put, they will likely go from threatening the security of South Koreans to threatening the lives of billions worldwide.

I don’t know what the solution is. And I’m terrified that Trump and his team seem bent on solving it themselves. But I hope that the next time you share a conspiratorial post about how Trump is simply trying to improve his approval ratings, or the next time you make a joke about North Korea, or the next time you insert a comment about how stupid the Administration is acting, you first take a moment to reflect on the future stakes of inaction. And I hope you realize, as I have come to realize, how complicated the situation is, how terrible the choices before us are, and how worried we all should be.

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