North Korea: US Security Lost for Want of a Backbone

Guest Contributor John Rolls

Lyrics from a 14th century nursery rhyme encouraged children to apply the art of logical progression to the consequences of their actions or inactions. It needs be heeded today in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat.

“For Want of a Nail” is a journey down the road of causal connection:

For want of a (horseshoe) nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the message was lost.
For want of the message, the battle was lost.
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

As President Donald Trump and North Korea’s “Incredible Bulk” leader, Kim Jong-un, exchange nuclear threats, we hear a chorus of experts who, out of frustration, suggest our inability to prevent Pyongyang from obtaining a nuclear arsenal should focus our efforts instead upon deterring it from using such weapons.

The most recent high-profile voice making this case is President Barack Obama’s former national security adviser, Susan Rice.

Acknowledging that Obama’s North Korea foreign policy was a failure – as well as that of his two predecessors – Rice urges Trump, in a New York Times op-ed, to tolerate Pyongyang’s violation of international promises and regulations “the same way we tolerated the far greater threat of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War.”

Rice’s ostrich-like, head-in-the-sand mentality explains why much of Obama’s foreign policy was a failure. The Obama-Rice team was simply unable to apply logical progression to its end point.

Rice’s op-ed contains fatal flaws that can prove lethal to our security if followed by Trump.

First, she suggests yet another diplomatic initiative be undertaken to convince the North Koreans their best interests are served by not using such weapons. Rice seems to ignore the fact all previous negotiations with Pyongyang have failed – only being used by its leadership to lull the West into a false sense of security as its nuclear and missile programs advanced.

As John Bolton pointed out in his own op-ed, “North Korea has always been willing to promise to abandon its nuclear ambitions to get tangible economic benefits. It just never gets around to honoring its commitments.”

Another experienced diplomat, Fred Ikle, has described diplomacy with the North Koreans as “boundless mendacity.”

Thus, it should be abundantly clear to any North Korea expert that diplomacy with the rogue nation is meaningless.

Second, Rice advises putting the focus on deterring Pyongyang from using its nuclear arsenal. But that should not be our main concern. In that regard, Rice’s assertion the Soviets posed a “far greater threat” is frighteningly naive.

The most important priority for Kim Jong-un, just like any despotic ruler, clearly is self-preservation. Suffering a retaliatory strike by initiating a nuclear attack against the U.S. would not play into that theme. The Soviets realized this, allowing us to survive a Cold War in which large nuclear arsenals were tolerated. The Soviets understood, as Kim does today, the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) leaves devastation on both sides, albeit total in North Korea.

Therefore, while it is reasonable to assume North Korea would not initiate a nuclear conflict, the logical progression of a nuclear-armed Pyongyang must be taken a step further. Doing so recognizes Kim will not hesitate to sell nukes to countries willing to use them – like Iran.

Tehran has worked closely with Pyongyang to take advantage of its nuclear and missile research and development. The two have been so closely involved that North Korean expert Ryan Mauro recently observed, if Pyongyang has mini-nukes, then so too does Tehran.

The Obama-Rice team knew of this relationship, yet turned a blind eye to it. Never demanded by Obama in the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated with Iran was that any continuing R&D relationship with North Korea violated the entire intent of the deal.

The bottom line concerning Rice’s advice is that she fails to grasp, while MAD deters North Korea, it does not deter Iran. Key is Tehran’s eschatological belief that global chaos is necessary to trigger the return of the Mahdi, who will lead Islam to world domination. Obviously, the best way to achieve such chaos is a nuclear strike. Thus Iran’s religious leaders are unfazed by any retaliatory action so triggered.

There are various ways Iran could effect this strike. While Tehran may currently lack missile delivery accuracy and range, one option is enlisting the terrorist group Hezbollah to do its dirty work.

Ever since 2006, Hezbollah, with Iran’s help, has been developing a South American presence. This initially was done in Venezuela, courtesy of the late dictator Hugo Chavez. Since then, Hezbollah has developed a relationship with drug cartels, allowing it to access our borders. Additionally, it now has a missile base in Venezuela – a presence never challenged by the Obama-Rice team. Thus, either a shorter-range missile fired from Venezuela or a suicide bomber sneaking a nuclear device across our borders could facilitate such a strike.

It is unconscionable any U.S. leader would examine the North Korean nuclear issue in a vacuum. If we show no backbone in dealing with North Korea, it gives Iran the green light to pave the way for Mahdi’s return.

As to U.S. inaction, the following logical progression must be considered:

For want of a U.S. backbone, prevention of North Korean nuclear proliferation was lost.

For want of preventing such proliferation, deterring Pyongyang from selling mini-nukes to Iran was lost.

For want of precluding the sale of mini-nukes to Iran, Iran’s so arming Hezbollah was lost.

For want of preventing a nuclear-armed Hezbollah, U.S. national security was lost.

And all for the want of a backbone.

The “For Want of a Nail” lesson of logical progression has been around for centuries. Benjamin Franklin believed it important enough to include in his 1732 publication of “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” Hopefully, it will not be lost upon President Trump.


  Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.


See more articles by John Rolls



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