Back when the Soviet Union had a first-rate nuclear arsenal but a ramshackle third-world economy that produced no consumer goods other than vodka and caviar that anyone elsewhere would buy, the nation was disparaged as “Upper Volta with rockets.” Today the question is: Would North Korea like to become Upper Volta without rockets and without exportable vodka or caviar?
This question is central as the president undertakes to bring about the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” dismantling of the nuclear weapons program that has been the North Korean regime’s obsession for more than 60 years. This regime has been run exclusively by and for the Kim family since 1948, during which time it has demonstrated an unswerving willingness to immiserate its people to ensure the regime’s survival.
The regime has wagered that nuclear weapons would guarantee the loyalty of the only possible internal threat to the family — the armed forces — and would immunize the nation from external threats. It also has wagered that the weapons, when wedded as they soon might be to intercontinental ballistic missiles, extort from other nations — especially the United States — attention, as well as economic benefits intended to wean North Korea from the nuclear weapons that are the only reason anyone pays attention to it.
North Korea has repeatedly won this wager. To wager is to put something at risk, but it is strange to say North Korea’s regime takes risks recklessly. Though vicious, it has been methodical and more or less predictable.
Much has been made of the relevance, as North Korea might see it, of the fact that, after the United States toppled Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (which would not have happened if he had had nuclear weapons), Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, responding to U.S. pressure, dismantled his pursuit of nuclear weapons — and later was deposed by U.S.-backed insurgents. Not enough is made of this: In 1994, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union left it in possession of the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, Ukraine gave it up in exchange for U.S. and British — and Russian — security guarantees. Crimea was then a part of Ukraine.
Speaking in Prague in 2009 at the dawn of his presidency — six months before he harvested the first purely anticipatory Nobel Peace Prize — President Barack Obama embraced the goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Six years later, he was seeking $348 billion for a 10-year modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Today, there are fewer nuclear weapons in the world than there were during the Cold War. This, however, adds less to global security than is subtracted from it by the fact that there are two more nuclear powers (Pakistan , North Korea) and there will be a third if, as seems certain, Iran is determined to be one.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has listed 12 “basic requirements” Iran must fulfill to avoid “the strongest sanctions in history” — assuming, perhaps fancifully, that Russia, China and other nations will tug their forelocks and comply with Trump administration ukases. Pompeo’s demands include halting all uranium enrichment and development of ballistic missiles, openness to unfettered inspectors, ending aid to terrorists and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, withdrawing Iran’s troops from Syria, and behaving neighborly toward its neighbors. It would have been fun — a maraschino cherry atop Pompeo’s sundae of a dozen demands — if he had included a 13th: Iranians must become Methodists.
Pompeo presented his demands as “shifts in Tehran’s policies.” In fact, they are more akin to asking a leopard not merely to change its spots, but to become a vegetarian. Perhaps Pompeo is mimicking his master.
The “art of the deal,” according to the supposed Rembrandt of this art (a six-time bankrupt), seems to be this: Ask for the universe, settle for one of Jupiter’s minor moons, claim that the moon is actually the center of the universe and was the real goal all along, and that only he — not Metternich, not Kissinger — could have plucked this flower, safety, from the nettle, danger.
However, the common denominator in most mishaps of governing — in both domestic (Prohibition, 1930s protectionism, the Great Society, 1970s wage and price controls, etc.) and foreign policies (Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, etc.) — is the belief that the world is more malleable than it is, that inertia is less powerful than it is, that social variables can be made to vary as we wish them to. But, then, such mishaps were in the era B.R. — Before Rembrandt.