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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Dealing With Dictators

While it's a stretch to state that any good can come from North Korea's recent revelation that it possesses a nuclear bomb, at least Pyongyang's surprise announcement of nuclear prowess serves to drive home an important geopolitical point: governments -- especially those of the backward, autocratic persuasion -- lie. They lie a lot.

In 1994, the North Korean government signed a treaty with the United States, promising in no uncertain terms that they would not develop nuclear weapons. Then-President Bill Clinton tried to hail the treaty as an assurance that "North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program."

Obviously, Pyongyang did not "freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program." The treaty was an outright lie. After they returned home from the bargaining table, North Korean leaders didn't hesitate for one second before resuming their efforts to build a nuke -- and eight short years later, they succeeded.

Perhaps even more shocking is the brashness with which North Korea flaunted arms control agreements. In 1998, North Korea -- in violation of international protocol -- fired an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, or IRBM, over Japan. This action, aside from being shockingly dangerous and reckless, was a thinly-veiled demonstration of North Korea's ability to drop an atomic bomb on downtown Tokyo. And although North Korea's 1994 agreement required them to allow international nuclear inspectors into their country to verify that old nuclear sites had been dismantled as promised, Pyongyang never even let inspectors across the border. (This sounds strangely similar to another current global dispute.)

What was the international response to North Korea's flouting of their promise to disarm? The United States went blindly ahead with its agreement to help North Korea build two light-water nuclear plants. (I don't think it's too cynical to suppose that Pyongyang's primary purpose for wanting the reactors was not to generate electricity.) Indeed, the West's clueless attitude towards North Korea is almost as frightening as Pyongyang's new bomb -- a bomb that could wipe Seoul or Tokyo off the map today and could even hit Los Angeles with a few years of work.

The lesson here is one that we should have learned long ago: aggressive and autocratic governments, like those in Iraq and North Korea, can't be trusted. Their existence is based on lying to their populations, and they have no qualms about lying to other nations as well if it serves their purposes. Iraq said they would disarm. They lied. North Korea said they would disarm. Surprise! They lied. Now, with their deceits revealed, both countries are scrambling for a new round of arms control treaties. This time we ought to treat their word for what it's worth -- absolutely nothing.

As obvious as it seems, this is a difficult fact to face up to. It flies in the face of our "enlightened" Western ideals of international dialogue and cultural relativism. It's frighteningly easy, sitting in our comfortable chairs and attending our learned institutions, to assume that North Korea's word is as good as that of any other nation and that murderous dictators will be moved to honesty by the reasoned appeal of the international community. Viewed from this perspective, outdated ideas like right and wrong, good and evil are scoffed at as politically incorrect and overly simplistic.

In reality, it's this logic of relativism that is overly simplistic and -- especially in the light of North Korea's recent spit in the eye of the international community -- outdated. It's time to come down from the ivory tower and come to grips with reality: there are bad guys out there, and they don't play by the rules. Placating them, catering to them and negotiating with them won't bring them around to the side of reason -- but it will give them time and room to wiggle as they pursue their own aggressive agendas.

America took a "hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil" attitude toward Pyongyang and in doing so we allowed the greatest instrument of destruction known to mankind to fall into North Korea's eager hands. As a result of this gigantic misstep, the world is now a more dangerous place -- that is the unavoidable consequence of our dropping the ball. Now, the very least we can do is learn from our mistake and try to prevent other threatening nations from going nuclear. And the way to do that is not by making concessions and expecting dictators to act in good faith. Make a deal with the devil, and you will get burned.