Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Dick Cheney Right About North Korea?

Former vice president Dick Cheney has reemerged periodically from wherever he's holed up these days to snarl at the media or complain about the Obama administration's laxity when it comes to national security. Cheney's take invariably seems to be that he did it better and more successfully. Yet his actual record of prognostication over the past decade has, of course, been spectacularly wrong. This is the fellow, after all, who instructed the American public that the Iraq insurgency was in its "last throes" just as it was really getting under way, not to mention the flowers he predicted would be showered upon invading American soldiers once they liberated Baghdad, as though it would be a rerun of Paris in 1945, when an entire city went on something of a bender after being freed from Nazi tyranny. Cheney, you could say, is a master at specializing in apocalyptic predictions that are aimed at frightening everyone into doing what he wants, whether or not the actual facts merit it. Then, when the rubble starts to rain down on everyone, he says it's only because his prescriptions weren't followed closely enough.

And yet when it comes to North Korea Cheney may be on to something in telling GOP congressional leaders this week, in a phrase first given prominence by George H.W. Bush, that "we're in deep doo-doo." Cheney's point—and it is not one that can be dismissed—is that we simply don't have a clear handle on what the North's new dear—and very young—leader actually wants or intends, or, to put it another way, thinks he desires. Is he simply trying to establish his bona fides in a Stalinist system? Is he attempting to upset South Korea's economy? Or is he aiming for economic concessions from North Korea's adversaries? Or does he actually mean what he says? Is he, in fact, preparing for war with the South?

In the New York Times, Andrei Lankov, who has written a book about the North, offers what might be termed the cool and sophisticated argument. He treats everything North Korea is doing with a big yawn. Been there and done that is his take. And so he maintains that Kim Jong-un is merely taking the world for a ride on his own giant ego trip. Far from being a fruitcake, the young lad in charge of the Hermit Kingdom, we are told, is unlikely to want to "commit suicide; he is known for his love of basketball, pizza and other pleasures of being alive. The same logic applies to his advisers, old survivors in the byzantine world of North Korean politics who love expensive cars and good brandy." Fair enough.

But not dispositive. Cheney is correct to suggest that we simply can't assume that North Korea will behave rationally. Rep. Steve Southerland says that Cheney observed,

Here's a young guy we don't know very much about – have very little intel on him, so we just need to make sure that we don't assume why he's doing what he's doing because he could be doing what he's doing for any number of reasons.

If the North does miscalculate and launch a serious strike on South Korea, President Obama would presumably not hesitate to authorize a devastating strike on the North's nuclear facilities. A full-blown war could result, but only if China was prepared to cut the North loose, which is wholly improbable. The optimal scenario for all the parties is, of course, to muddle through and hope that the North's bluster is exactly that and no more.

For now, North Korea is angering its neighbors, including Japan, which has installed Patriot anti-missile battery systems in Tokyo. It's possible that debris from a North Korean missile launch may rain upon Japan. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says that North Korea is "skating very close to a dangerous line." As always, the only predictable thing about North Korea is its unpredictability. But that is no reason to become habituated to the North's posturing. Ramping up the military response to the North's provocations and trying to work more closely with China to curb them are the right responses.