North Korea has the bomb. That a regime led by the apparently misanthropic Kim Jong Il is now nuclear capable may undercut the mad balance of deterrence, with disastrous results. How did we come to this?
Washington bet that blustering belligerence was the way to deal with Pyongyang, and lost. In 2002, the Bush administration made two moves preparing the way for the North Korean nuke. The first was to demonize the regime with the language of evil, as President Bush did in that year's State of the Union address -- a transcendent challenge that only bolstered North Korea's most extreme impulses and destroyed what chances remained of negotiations. The second was the formal promulgation, in the ``National Security Strategy of the United States," of the Bush administration's determination to replace nonproliferation with ``proactive counter-proliferation efforts" -- including aggressive regime change. After the US invasion of Iraq, North Korea saw what was coming, and saw, equally, a way to deter it.
At the same time, the Bush administration, in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, began to pursue a new generation of nuclear weapons, sparking equivalent impulses in other nations. George W. Bush emerged as the proliferator-in-chief.
But there were other crossroads moments on the long journey to Pyongyang's nuclear weapon, and Americans should revisit key turning points to ask, Might the story have gone another way? The Stalinist character of the North Korean Communist regime is like a fossil preserved in amber from another era, but it did not become so by itself -- or inevitably. Indeed, the story could have been different at the start.
At the end of World War II, the great strategic contest between the Soviet Union and the United States was focused on Europe, with Berlin as the prize. The Korean peninsula, like Germany, was divided into occupation zones, but because it was of no strategic importance to either side, Moscow withdrew its forces in 1948, and the United States withdrew in 1949. The dividing line at the 38th parallel remained a border between North and South Korea, but that was assumed to be temporary, as the Korean nation would reconstitute itself. In January of 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared, in the ``Press Club speech," that Korea was outside of the ``defense perimeter" of American security concerns. Less than six months later, North Korea, perhaps taking that as an opening, crossed the 38th Parallel.
The Pentagon, led by Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Chairman Omar Bradley, agreed with Acheson's January assessment, and opposed the introduction of US ground troops. The Korean crisis could be perceived more as a civil war than as Moscow's aggression. (Indeed, we now know that Stalin did not initiate it.) By then, however, Acheson, under attack for having supported the recently disgraced Alger Hiss, needed to prove his anti-Communist ``toughness." He pushed Truman toward war, Truman ordered it, and the decades-long stalemate -- the fossil-capturing amber -- was the result. The point today is that there was nothing preordained about the Korean War. If the Koreans themselves had been left to sort out their national struggle, even assuming a Communist victory, contemporary Korea would be (at worst) like China.
If American decisions early in the Cold War played a role in creating the present danger, such decisions did so again at the end of the Cold War. After all, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had put nuclear abolition squarely on the international agenda. At Reykjavik 20 years ago this month, the Soviet leader proposed the elimination of all nuclear weapons by the year 2000, to which Reagan replied, ``Well, Mikhail. . . that's always been my goal." But it was not the goal of presidents who followed him. In 1994, the Clinton administration, in what may have been its most fateful act, issued the Nuclear Posture Review, a decision to maintain the nuclear status quo as a hedge against the possibility that Moscow might still pose some kind of threat. The United States was no longer committed, even in principle, to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Other nations would now be fully justified in obtaining them. The Nuclear Posture Review, as I heard one wag put it, was the insurance policy that started the fire.
America is not the cause of North Korea's bomb. The tyrant Kim Jong Il is. But neither is America innocent of this terrible turn in the world's story. That makes us more obliged than ever to get serious, finally, about ridding the world of nukes, beginning with our own.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 The Boston Globe