There we were nearly a quarter-century ago, winging westward 40,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. We were aboard the same 707 that had brought John F. Kennedy’s body back from Dallas on November 22, 1963 (we reporters were crammed into the rear compartment that carried his bronze casket back to Washington, but I digress). Thirty years after that tragic trip, it had become Defense Secretary Bill Perry’s plane. He invited me up to his private cabin, where we discussed nuclear proliferation and North Korea.
“Our policy right along has been oriented to try to keep North Korea from getting a significant nuclear weapon capability,” Perry told me.
At the time, U.S. intelligence estimated it had one or two. “We don’t know anything we can do about that,” Perry said. “What we can do something about, though, is stopping them from building beyond that.”
The U.S. intelligence community now believes North Korea has or can make as many as 60 nuclear weapons.
So how’s that working out, America?
I began covering North Korea when grandpa was still in charge. That would be Kim Il-sung, who handed off power to his son, Kim Jong-il, in 1991. Twenty years later, the son handed the keys to the Hermit Kingdom to his son, Kim Jong-un, who, along with Donald Trump, has been frightening the world for months with their nuclear-tipped rhetoric.
President Trump told the United Nations Sept. 19 that “if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Kim Jong-un countered with a highly-unusual personal response. He called Trump “mentally deranged” (look who’s talking!) and said Trump’s threat to “destroy” North Korea has “convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct.”
You get the feeling these two guys are like Jim and Buzz Rebel Without a Cause, the 1955 film classic where one dies a fiery death because of their joint stupidity.
I’m sure than when it comes to atomic arms, swapping Mutually-Assured Destruction for Mutually-Assured Dementia may represent some kind of progress.
So is this third Kim crafty or nuts? Or both? History offers some guidance, but it’s not reassuring. North Korea has been striking out of the blue longer than the 40 years I’ve been a reporter, blowing up ships, aircraft and ax-murdering a pair of U.S. soldiers.
North Korea’s foreign minister upped the ante Sept. 25 after Trump’s threat. “Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country,” Ri Yong-ho said.
Speaking of movies, we have seen that one before. It involved a North Korean MiG-21 fighter that downed an unarmed U.S. Navy EC-121 spy plane over the Sea of Japan in 1969. The shoot down happened 65 days after the Pentagon cancelled fighter-escort flights for such missions.
“The Communist fighter pilots issued no warning to the unarmed, four-engine turboprop, which lumbered along gathering electronic signals under a long-standing project code-named Beggar Shadow,” retired Army lieutenant general Dan Bolger wrote as a young officer in 1991 after serving there. “Thirty-one Americans died in the one-sided encounter.”
Soon after communication with the plane was lost, the North Korean Central News Agency said its air force had shot down “with one stroke at high altitude” a plane flown by "U.S. imperialist aggressor troops.” Any retaliation, it added in English, would be met with "hundredfold revenge.”
Within hours, the Joint Chiefs had a retaliation roster. “A Joint Staff paper, forwarded to the White House on the evening of 15 April, defined US objectives as receiving appropriate redress, acting to prevent further incidents, avoiding escalation into a larger conflict, and causing minimum disruption to other worldwide operations,” Volume 10 of the Joint Chiefs’ history notes.
Adm. John McCain Jr., father of the Arizona senator by the same name, warned Washington against inaction. “If we operate again in the Sea of Japan only as a show of force, and without positive action, I believe that we continue to provide justification to their judgment of us as 'Paper tigers,’” McCain wrote. “The end result might well be the opposite of our intended purpose and encourage rather than discourage further belligerence.”
A 1970 Top Secret after-action report into the shoot down (declassified in 2010) said that “numerous plans for punitive action were being readied which would allow options over a wide spectrum of conflict.”
They ran the gamut:
But consumed by Vietnam, and chastened by North Korea’s seizure of the USS Pueblo spy ship a year earlier, the U.S. government waffled. Even though the shootdown happened over international waters—Soviet vessels helped recover debris—there was scant reaction from the three-month old Nixon administration. The Navy staged an exercise in the Sea of Japan a few days later, but beyond that North Korea paid no price.
Next month, Trump will travel to Asia to get personal about Pyongyang’s misbehavior with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea. “The president’s engagements will strengthen the international resolve to confront the North Korean threat and ensure the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the White House said Sept. 29.
There’s no telling how this is going to turn out, but this much is clear: Kim Jong-un knows the future of his regime is inextricably bound to his nuclear arsenal. He’s got the rest of the world just where he wants it: cowering, like it or not, at the prospect of him joining the nuclear club and the world standing impotently by while he does it. It’s part of the North Korean ethos of Juche—self-reliance.
“His scientists and engineers are working feverishly on nuclear arms and long-range missiles. But those are revenge weapons. They’re made to prevent him from following Manuel Noriega, Mullah Omar, and Saddam Hussein onto the dust heap of history,” says Bolger, who also wrote Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan, in 2014. The only smart choice is to “keep North Korea in the box,” which has been Seoul and Washington’s strategy for decades. “It’s neither quick nor easy,” Bolger adds. “But it beats a war.”
China, North Korea’s key trading partner, doesn’t want the refugees streaming across the Yalu River onto its soil that Pyongyang’s collapse would trigger. That, in tandem with the Russian-North Korean black market that help keeps North Korea alive, is sufficient to keep North Korea’s people hungry, but alive, and its nuclear program both alive and hungry. Trump’s hand will be stayed by the non-nuclear threat North Korea poses to the 10 million residents of Seoul, 35 miles from North Korean artillery tubes.
During his recent visit to India, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis tried to turn the focus from possible military action to negotiations. “The effort to denuclearize the Korean peninsula is one that has been diplomatically led,” he said Sept. 26. “That is our goal—to solve this diplomatically. And I believe that President Trump has been very clear on this issue.” Unfortunately, the Trump administration currently lacks an ambassador to Seoul and an assistant secretary of state responsible for East Asia.
When it comes to terror, nuclear weapons are truly the end-all, be-all. Poli-sci types like to lump them in with biological and chemical weapons as “weapons of mass destruction,” but only nuclear weapons are the complete package: fearsome firepower with minimal blowback on the user. That is why the world has always treated them differently; think of how Syria would have been different if Bashar Assad had had, and used, tactical nuclear weapons instead of chemical compounds to keep his grip on power.
“I think there’s a 10 percent chance the wheels really come off and we have a full-on war on the Korean Peninsula, which would include nuclear use,” Jim Stavridis, the level-headed retired admiral and former NATO chief, said Sept. 26. “That’s well over double what it was three months ago.”
There’s a good chance North Korea will never use its nuclear weapons, but that’s almost beside the point. Nations cherish them not for their actual utility but for their insidious influence.
It’s a safe bet North Korea took Admiral McCain’s admonition that the U.S. was a “paper tiger” when it barely reacted to the EC-121 shootdown nearly 50 years ago.
In hindsight, Henry Kissinger, who was President Nixon’s national security adviser at the time of the shootdown, denounced his government’s response to it as “weak, indecisive and disorganized.” Come to think of it, that fairly sums up Washington’s handling of North Korea’s atomic ambitions over the past 25 years.
Following the shootdown, Nixon made a solemn promise. “They got away with it this time, but they'll never get away with it again,” he vowed.
They already have.