If you listen to the administration today you would think America was a small, virtually defenseless country threatened by a gaggle of hostile great powers. The latest national-security crisis involves the vast, globe-spanning empire of North Korea. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats declared on NBC that the North “has become a potential existential threat to the United States.” He apparently sees Pyongyang’s armored divisions, aircraft carriers, air wings and nuclear-tipped missiles encircling the beleaguered United States.
In fact, Coats’ claim is astonishing. Last year the United States had a GDP of almost $19 trillion, roughly 650 times the GDP of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The latter is equivalent to the economies of Portland, Maine; Anchorage, Alaska; El Paso, Texas; or Lexington, Kentucky. America’s population is around thirteen times as large as that of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The U.S. military vastly outranges the North’s armed forces—spending upwards of one hundred times as much. America sets the technological standard for the world, while much of North Korea’s materiel is old and decrepit. With the world’s most sophisticated nuclear arsenal and 1411 warheads (the peak was 31,255 about fifty years ago), Washington could incinerate the North in an instant. Pyongyang is thought to possess around twenty nukes of uncertain deliverability.
Who poses an existential threat to whom?
But Coats is not the only Washington official prepared to run screaming from the room when North Korea is mentioned. Last month Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee that the North is the “most urgent and dangerous threat” to world peace and security. The DPRK’s nuclear program “is a clear and present danger to all,” he added.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned the same committee that North Korea’s behavior posed “an increasing threat to the U.S. and our allies.” Indeed, Pyongyang’s development of long-range missiles “is specifically intended to threaten the security of the homeland and our Allies in the Pacific.”
The American people appear to have been listening. A recent CNN poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe the DPRK poses an “immediate” military threat to the United States and 67 percent of them favor sending U.S. troops to defend South Korea.
The irony is that the latter position is largely responsible for the former challenge. If the North poses a threat to America, it is because America first posed a threat to the North.
Of course, there is nothing good to say about the Kim dynasty, now on its third generation. The regime has brutalized North Korea’s population and frightened the DPRK’s neighbors. Most Americans would love to consign Pyongyang’s present rulers to the ash-heap of history.
Unfortunately, North Korean elites know that. After all, the United States intervened to defend the Republic of Korea after the 1950 DPRK invasion and would have liberated the entire peninsula had China not intervened. Gen. Douglas MacArthur then advocated using nuclear weapons, a threat also employed by the incoming Eisenhower administration to encourage conclusion of an armistice.
Once that agreement was reached, the United States forged a mutual defense treaty with the South. During the ensuing years the American government maintained a garrison in South Korea and supplementary units nearby, such as Okinawa. It stationed nuclear weapons on the peninsula, regularly conducted joint military exercises with the South, sent naval forces—including aircraft carriers—off of the North’s coasts and flew strategic bombers over North Korea. It also insisted that “all options were on the table,” meaning military action.
As Washington presumably desired, Pyongyang officials noticed such activities and did not view them as friendly. Of course, North Korea was dangerous, especially when it still possessed the military backing of the People’s Republic of China and Soviet Union. But America’s military measures clearly posed an existential threat to the North Korean regime.
The U.S. danger was exacerbated by the end of the Cold War, when first Moscow and then Beijing opened diplomatic relations with South Korea. While the People’s Republic of China today helps keep the North afloat economically, the former would not back the latter in a war with America. The DPRK is truly alone, against its southern neighbor with vastly greater resources backed by the globe’s sole superpower. That is a lonely position.
It would be serious enough if Washington was simply defending its allies. But the Kim regime has seen the United States promiscuously intervene militarily around the globe. American administrations have used the armed forces to promote regime change in Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The government of the latter was so foolish as to trade away its nukes and missiles, leaving it vulnerable to outside intervention. The United States also tried to capture a dominant warlord in Somalia, intervened to prevent secession in Bosnia, dismembered Serbia, and backed the invading Saudis in Yemen.