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The Best Bad Option

04/29/2017

This week, I sat quietly and listened to several discussions among intelligent people about the Gordian Knot that is North Korea.  Such discussions usually recite a laundry list of things we cannot do, because it would involve the loss of human life.  It seems to me that the loss of human life is inevitable in this geopolitical tar-baby.

Eventually, the “crazy, fat kid,” as Senator John McCain referred to Kim Jong Un, will develop an intercontinental missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the western United States. That is the worst option.  Precluding this reminds me of President Truman’s argument that the massive loss of life in Hiroshima and in Nagasaki was justified, because it prevented the deaths of uncountable Americans landing on the shores of Japan.

The “Soviet” option seems to be the most popular right now, which assumes we can bankrupt North Korea in an arms race they cannot win, like we did to the former Soviet Union.  First, I cannot see their egocentric leader leaving gracefully under any scenario — without a blaze of glory. Why should he?  Second, the Chinese will be stuck with many of the 25 million North Koreans streaming across the border in search of food.  How many North Koreans will die in a regime collapse?

Rather than simply checking off a laundry list of options, we need an analytic discussion of how many people will lose their lives with each option.  How can any option be chosen without that information?  Of course, estimating the unknowable is always difficult, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  Operating under “conditions of uncertainty” is not new.

There is an unfortunate racial dimension to any such discussion.  Is it better to let 1,000,000 North Koreans and another 3,000,000 South Koreans get killed now, in order to prevent the death of a million Americans in five years?  Well, is it?  What would Truman do?

One consideration is that South Korea was irresponsible in allowing enormous population growth in Seoul, which is only 35 miles from the DMZ and is within easy range of an estimated ten thousand long-range cannons.  They had a large country to the south of Seoul, outside cannon range, that could have been developed far more safely, to minimize the inevitable loss of life from the fanatical North Koreans.  They should be “hardening” their people right now, with fortified bunkers and such.  They can afford it.  After all, their economy is growing much faster than our economy (3.6% vs 2% in the US).

Like President Truman before him, President Trump must “play God,” and I pray he makes the right decision.

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