Mr. Kim’s brand of de­ter­rence

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

Back when the So­viet Union had a first-rate nu­clear ar­se­nal but a ram­shackle third­world econ­omy that pro­duced no con­sumer goods other than vodka and caviar that any­one else­where would buy, the na­tion was dis­par­aged as “Up­per Volta with rock­ets.” To­day the ques­tion is: Would North Korea like to be­come Up­per Volta with­out rock­ets and with­out ex­portable vodka or caviar?

This ques­tion is cen­tral as the pres­i­dent un­der­takes to bring about the “com­plete, ver­i­fi­able and ir­re­versible” dis­man­tling of the nu­clear weapons pro­gram that has been the North Korean regime’s ob­ses­sion for more than 60 years. This regime has been run ex­clu­sively by and for the Kim fam­ily since 1948, dur­ing which time it has demon­strated an unswerv­ing will­ing­ness to im­mis­er­ate its peo­ple to en­sure the regime’s sur­vival.

The regime has wa­gered that nu­clear weapons would guar­an­tee the loy­alty of the only pos­si­ble in­ter­nal threat to the fam­ily — the armed forces — and would im­mu­nize the na­tion from ex­ter­nal threats. It also has wa­gered that the weapons, when wed­ded as they soon might be to in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles, ex­tort from other na­tions — es­pe­cially the United States — at­ten­tion, as well as eco­nomic ben­e­fits in­tended to wean North Korea from the nu­clear weapons that are the only rea­son any­one pays at­ten­tion to it.

North Korea has re­peat­edly won this wa­ger. To wa­ger is to put some­thing at risk, but it is strange to say North Korea’s regime takes risks reck­lessly. Though vi­cious, it has been me­thod­i­cal and more or less pre­dictable.

Much has been made of the rel­e­vance, as North Korea might see it, of the fact that, after the United States top­pled Iraq’s Sad­dam Hus­sein (which would not have hap­pened if he had had nu­clear weapons), Libya’s Moam­mar Gaddafi, re­spond­ing to U.S. pres­sure, dis­man­tled his pur­suit of nu­clear weapons — and later was de­posed by U.S.-backed in­sur­gents. Not enough is made of this: In 1994, after the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the So­viet Union left it in pos­ses­sion of the world’s third-largest nu­clear ar­se­nal, Ukraine gave it up in ex­change for U.S. and British — and Rus­sian — se­cu­rity guar­an­tees. Crimea was then a part of Ukraine.

Speak­ing in Prague in 2009 at the dawn of his pres­i­dency — six months be­fore he har­vested the first purely an­tic­i­pa­tory No­bel Peace Prize — Pres­i­dent Barack Obama em­braced the goal of rid­ding the world of nu­clear weapons. Six years later, he was seek­ing $348 bil­lion for a 10-year mod­ern­iza­tion of the U.S. nu­clear ar­se­nal. To­day, there are fewer nu­clear weapons in the world than there were dur­ing the Cold War. This, how­ever, adds less to global se­cu­rity than is sub­tracted from it by the fact that there are two more nu­clear pow­ers (Pak­istan, North Korea) and there will be a third if, as seems cer­tain, Iran is de­ter­mined to be one.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo has listed 12 “ba­sic re­quire­ments” Iran must ful­fill to avoid “the strong­est sanc­tions in his­tory” — as­sum­ing, per­haps fan­ci­fully, that Rus­sia, China and other na­tions will tug their fore­locks and com­ply with Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ukases. Pom­peo’s de­mands in­clude halt­ing all ura­nium en­rich­ment and de­vel­op­ment of bal­lis­tic mis­siles, open­ness to un­fet­tered in­spec­tors, end­ing aid to ter­ror­ists and the Houthi rebels in Ye­men, with­draw­ing Iran’s troops from Syria, and be­hav­ing neigh­borly to­ward its neigh­bors. It would have been fun — a maraschino cherry atop Pom­peo’s sun­dae of a dozen de­mands — if he had in­cluded a 13th: Ira­ni­ans must be­come Methodists.

Pom­peo pre­sented his de­mands as “shifts in Tehran’s poli­cies.” In fact, they are more akin to ask­ing a leop­ard not merely to change its spots, but to be­come a veg­e­tar­ian. Per­haps Pom­peo is mim­ick­ing his mas­ter.

The “art of the deal,” ac­cord­ing to the sup­posed Rem­brandt of this art (a six-time bankrupt), seems to be this: Ask for the uni­verse, set­tle for one of Jupiter’s mi­nor moons, claim that the moon is ac­tu­ally the cen­ter of the uni­verse and was the real goal all along, and that only he — not Met­ter­nich, not Kissinger — could have plucked this flower, safety, from the net­tle, dan­ger.

How­ever, the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor in most mishaps of govern­ing — in both do­mes­tic (Pro­hi­bi­tion, 1930s pro­tec­tion­ism, the Great So­ci­ety, 1970s wage and price con­trols, etc.) and for­eign poli­cies (Woodrow Wil­son’s Four­teen Points, the Bay of Pigs, Viet­nam, Iraq, Libya, etc.) — is the be­lief that the world is more mal­leable than it is, that in­er­tia is less pow­er­ful than it is, that so­cial vari­ables can be made to vary as we wish them to. But, then, such mishaps were in the era B.R. — Be­fore Rem­brandt.

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