A nuclear N. Korea wouldn’t be easy to endure

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By Greg Dobbs

Jefferson County’s connections to the big news stories of recent days— troops in Afghanistan, terrorism in Barcelona, racism in Charlottesville, confrontation with North Korea— are indistinct. But with North Korea warning Sunday of “the uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war,” confrontation is back. And so is belligerence. And so is the nuclear menace. Jefferson County isn’t likely in North Korea’s crosshairs. But if the confrontation turns uncontrollable, all of us could be the losers.
So we still have to ask ourselves is President Trump’s strategy making war more likely or less?
Maybe Trump’s right. Maybe he’s got to speak to North Korea’s ruthless Kim Jong-un in confrontational “locked and loaded” language that the equally confrontational Kim can understand.
But I don’t think so. An old colleague, Mort Rosenblum, former editor of the International Herald Tribune, has written, “Saddam Hussein ... or Muammar Qaddafi ... ought to teach us something. Tyrants cannot let themselves back away from showdown, least of all Kim Jong-un. God help us all if he delivers a suicide note.” Cornered, he could.
Maybe President Trump is right to insist that his threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” was “not a dare. It’s a statement of fact.”
But I don’t think so. Another old colleague, Washington Post journalist Michael Dobbs (no relation), reveals in “One Minute to Midnight,” his book about the Cuban missile crisis, that President Kennedy’s wife Jackie wrote after the showdown, “The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones. While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride.” Who today will prove to be big?
Maybe President Trump is right to assert, “It’s about time somebody stuck up for the people of this country” and, personally, I think he is, but not the way he’s doing it. President Obama’s U.N. ambassador Susan Rice writes in an op-ed piece that President Trump’s threats “risk tipping the Korean Peninsula into war, if the North’s leader ... believes them and acts precipitously.” That depends on whether Kim is rational or irrational. Which we don’t really know.
What we do know is that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seem cast in the same impulsive, truculent, unseasoned mold. If there’s a temperamental miscalculation, there is no turning back. Which should scare us. Even here in Jeffco.
This is not to put Kim and Trump on the same moral plane. North Korea threatens to upset the peace on both sides of the Pacific. The United States threatens to prevent it.
It might become necessary to pulverize North Korea’s nuclear program before it sends a bomb streaking toward a Western ally, an American territory or the United States itself. But like his father and grandfather before him, Kim’s only ideology is survival on the family throne. He certainly knows that if he launches weapons at Western targets, he and his nation could be wiped off the face of the earth.
So it’s pretty safe to assume that he won’t be the first to attack. And that he’s not suicidal. And that his bark is worse than his bite. Where I empathize with President Trump is, “pretty safe” is not enough.
Yet our options are precious few and from my own experience covering dictators, none is encouraging. Diplomacy is still one, although it hasn’t gotten us much in the past. Sanctions? In a nation where people’s prosperity has never been a priority, same story. Regime change comes with real risks of blowback. Pressure from China? When it weighs the dangers of a madman on its border against the dangers of a war that could put American power on its border, the madman doesn’t look so bad.
Playing chicken could be catastrophic. If Kim strikes first, he will be disemboweled, but as recent Trump strategist Steve Bannon realistically said last week, not before pouring fire on our friends and us. If we strike first, the result will be the same.
A nuclear North Korea wouldn’t be easy to endure. But a cold war beats a hot one.

Greg Dobbs is a 30-year Evergreen resident. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was a regular Courier columnist.