Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 08:23 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 08:23 | SYDNEY

North Korea: Fantasy and reality


Sam Roggeveen


7 April 2009 15:27

A colleague alerted me to some comments by prominent Republican Newt Gingrich, who wanted to clobber North Korea's missile before it got off the ground: 

There are three or four techniques that could have been used, from unconventional forces to standoff capabilities, to say: "We're not going to tolerate a North Korean missile launch, period."

Gingrich goes on to criticise Obama's 'fantasy' foreign policy, but who's fantasising here?
There is no military solution to this dilemma — not missile defence, and certainly not air strikes or special forces. The reason lies in the geography of the Korean peninsula. The proximity of Seoul (and several other South Korean cities) to the border with the North means Pyongyang essentially holds that city hostage.

North Korea has been playing around with ballistic missiles for a long time, but all it needs to effectively destroy South Korea's capital is a rain of shells from decades-old Soviet artillery pieces lined up along the border. Sure, they would eventually be destroyed by US and South Korean warplanes, but how many rounds do you think they will be able to get off before that happens?
So no military solution, and probably no diplomatic one either, since there is nothing the US or any other country can offer North Korea that is more likely than nuclear weapons to get the North what it really wants — regime survival.
What Gingrich's comments reflect, I think, is a basic inability to internalise the fact that countries other than the US — even poor, benighted North Korea — can take actions that will damage US interests, and which Washington can simply do nothing about.
You can draw an analogy with al Qaeda here. The group is meaningless by most measures of international power, yet it has the capacity to cause significant harm to the US, and the US can do little about it. It's a problem to be managed, since it can never really be solved. Frustrating, yes, but that's life.
I said yesterday that the powers arrayed against North Korea are in a position of great strength, and that's true. But just as is the case with al Qaeda, those strengths cannot easily be applied to the problem at hand. So it may be galling to accept (particularly for those of a hegemonic mindset), but the US will just have to lump it — North Korea has gone nuclear, and there's nothing anybody can do.