Paul Greenberg / May 28, 2009

Today, North Korea; Tomorrow, Iran

It may be shocking but it could scarcely have been a surprise:

The crazy aunt in the world’s attic has been playing around with nuclear weapons again, this time setting off an even bigger underground explosion – possibly one big enough to wipe out a city the size of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. To which the five veto-wielding powers at the United Nations have responded much as they did the first couple of times the North Korean regime defied the UN by setting off nukes: with oh-so-serious, oh-so-official statements.

Just as before, empty words will have no discernible effect on Kim Jong Il’s regime and family business. The Kims, freres et fils, know the drill by now: The world huffs and puffs while Kim & Co. become an ever clearer and more dangerous threat.

It’s not clear how becoming a nuclear power will help North Korea’s starving people, but their welfare has never been of paramount importance to their rulers, or of any importance at all. The Kims run their gulag of a country for their own and their party’s benefit. The way the Brothers Castro run Cuba.

North Korea’s own Maximum Leader may hope to blackmail the rest of the world into supplying his regime with food, power plants, and associated benefits. Why not? It’s worked before. During the Clinton administration, for example. Maybe the formerly pudgy, now ailing little dictator is after something less tangible, like respect – or at least a show of it. Or maybe the current ruling Kim doesn’t know exactly what he wants, but just likes to see others quake in fear. Which is how tyrants get their jollies.

The loose coalition being organized to deter Pyongyang – notably South Korea, Japan and the United States – may or may not be able to prevent the North Koreans from exporting their bomb to terrorist groups and regimes. An even tighter watch on North Korea’s shipping would help; so would a meaningful attempt to shut that rogue regime out of the world’s financial system.

All the idle talk in the world, and there’s a surfeit of it, did not prevent the North Koreans from exporting their nuclear know-how to a terrorist regime like Syria’s not long ago. It was Israeli action – for the Israelis said not a word – which put an end to that secretive deal. Not till the rest of the world is willing to take action, not just repeat empty phrases, is North Korea likely to cease and desist from its nuclear ambitions.

The failure of deterrence in one part of the world can’t be limited to just that part of the world. Iran’s regime is watching and learning lessons from North Korea’s defiance of the United Nations, which continues to outdo its ill-fated predecessor, the old League of Nations, at doing nothing.

It’s not just the UN that has adopted temporizing as a substitute for a policy. The other day Barack Obama gave Iran a green light for its nuclear program by saying Washington will wait till the end of the year before doing anything about the growing nuclear threat from Iran – and even then this country’s response may consist only of words, not action.

Meeting with the once and again Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the American president gave Israel a red light. His administration has made no secret of its opposition to the Israelis’ acting alone to forestall an Iranian Bomb, but if the Israelis are not for themselves, who will be for them? They learned long ago that, if they’re not going to defend themselves, no one else will.

Having just seen how effective Washington has been at preventing North Korea from acquiring and testing nuclear weapons, why should the Israelis believe the United States will do any better at stopping Iran from acquiring its Bomb?

Israel is not likely to pay Washington overmuch attention in the face of this fast developing threat to its existence, for Iran’s fuehrer has made no secret of his wanting to wipe the Jewish state off the map. For the Israelis, self-preservation may take priority over even good relations with its powerful and maybe only ally. Especially if they suspect many Americans might be relieved to have someone else thwart Iran’s nuclear designs, since successive American administration haven’t been able to.

With the West only wringing its hands at prospect of a nuclear weapon in the mullahs’ hands, the Israelis may prefer the world’s condemnation to risking their own incineration. Whether a nuclear-tipped missile is launched directly from Iran or via intermediaries like Hezbollah or Hamas would seem of little moment to them. They just want to prevent the possibility of its being launched at all. On the theory that one Holocaust was enough.

The moral of this story: North Korea isn’t just a danger in itself but by example. Even before the end of the year arrives, things could get entirely too interesting for comfort in the Middle East.

© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC. 

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