By William Urban


            The North Koreans promise to disclose everything about their nuclear program. Sounds good, but that’s the same promise they made in February, saying they’d do it in sixty days. So, what good is a promise?

            Well, it’s better than a threat. It means the two sides are still talking. It’s not quite deeds, but it’s better than the demand that the United States destroy its nuclear stockpile first. We do have people who call the United States a criminal nation for having atomic weapons, people who believe that the North Korea dictator is no threat to anyone. Even the Japanese don’t believe that, and one of the most disturbing developments of recent months is the quiet Japanese rearmament. The Japanese were once, in their own words, a warrior race, and a small percentage of their gross domestic product is a lot of money. We really don’t want to get them in the nuclear arms race, too. Much better to eliminate the North Koreans’ atom bombs and missiles.

            But how? The South Koreans are working on this. After decades of efforts to reach out to the North, there are signs of a breakthrough. No longer are the North Koreans saying that reunification (on their terms) is the only answer. Maybe it is the annual failure of the North Korean harvest, maybe some North Koreans are realizing that South Korea is an economic giant, but the answer is probably simpler — the Chinese passed the word that they are running out of patience. And the Chinese know what promises are worth.

            What is a promise worth?  Sam Goldwin, who was once known by everyone for both his movies and his original approach to the English language, reportedly said, “An oral agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

            On the other hand, private agreements can sometimes be relied upon. John Kennedy made us believe that he had backed the Soviet Union down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (His Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, wrote, “We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”) The reality was that Kennedy promised to remove the missiles from Turkey. We both pulled back, and much, much later we learned that the Soviet Union had operational missiles in Cuba at the time of the crisis. And that Castro had urged using them.

            Kennedy also promised not to attempt to remove Castro, and every president since has honored that agreement. So the last dictator in Spanish-speaking America remains in power. Like North Korea, his regime cannot survive without foreign subsidies; Hugo Chavez’s oil keeps the economy going, but only barely.

            We have an army division in Korea that should have come home long ago. We kept it near the border as a “trip wire”, but really as a guarantee that the United States would go to war if North Korea invaded. It is a highly plausible bargaining chip—the atom bombs and missiles go, and so do the US troops.

            Of course, some bombs and missiles may already have gone. There was a little publicized Israeli raid into Syria a short while back. The rumors all suggest that North Korean weaponry was destroyed or captured, or even a nuclear reactor. These were to have been smuggled in through Lebanon, right past incurious UN inspectors. It would be no surprise. When Saddam Hussein finally realized that George Bush was serious, he sent convoys of trucks into Syria. It was not household furniture.

            It would be awkward if politicians could not change their minds. That might be a form of hypocrisy, but it can also be proof that they can adapt to new circumstances. In my view, mature behavior is somewhere between carrying out good decisions and abandoning bad ones, and knowing which is which.

            Sometimes it is not clear what is best. John Kerry has promised us multiple times to sign form 180, opening his military record to the public. Is that just “promises, promises” and business as usual? Or is there a reason? In any case, since the fate of the Republic is no longer involved, we can put this down with those situations we won’t understand until much later, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, WMDs in Iraq, and North Korea’s nuclear program.


Daily Review Atlas (October 23, 2007)