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I’m really getting worried about the North Korea crisis – and not just because of the latest headline news since I last wrote on the subject. As most of you have heard or read by now, North Korea has just successfully tested a ballistic missile capable of hitting Alaska. This means that Pyongyang is perilously close to being able to hit American territory with a nuclear weapon. Given how rapid the North’s progress on this frightening front has been, it won’t be too much longer before this erratic (and I’m being charitable here) dictatorship figures out how to lengthen the range of these missiles, arm them with nuclear warheads, and put every inch of the United States in harm’s way.

Of course that’s terrifying enough. But comparably frightening is the continuingly blasé attitude that has underlain the response of the American foreign policy establishment – including a mainstream media that faithfully parrots its views. Just consider the two following items.

First, at the end of May, Admiral James Syring, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said that the Pentagon’s latest test of an anti-missile system showed the military’s ability to “outpace the threat” emanating from North Korea. Not that he’s the last word on the matter, since his views could be colored by political considerations. But this statement wasn’t per se transparently unreasonable.

Yet just a week later, Syring was singing a different tune. Testifying before Congress (that is, under oath), he stated “I would not say we are comfortably ahead of the threat; I would say we are addressing the threat that we know today.” Moreover, Syring attributed his judgment to “The advancements in the last six months have caused great concern to me and others, in the advancement of and demonstration of technology of ballistic missiles from North Korea.” If that’s not an admission that his previous statement (which had been made within that six-month time frame) was baloney, I don’t know what is.

But it gets better. Last Monday came the North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Last Tuesday, the U.S. government confirmed the missile’s range. But a Defense Department spokesman that same day declared, “We do have confidence in our ability to defend against the limited threat, the nascent threat that is there.”

Now it’s important to remember that, as I’ve written previously, the Pentagon’s definition of success is nothing less than hair-raising. It boils down to “We’ll get most of the missiles.” As in “some of the missiles get through.” As in “big American city (or two or three?) gets obliterated.” Indeed, the DoD spokesman repeated that very definition when he discussed the missile defense program’s track record so far: “It’s something we have mixed results on. But we also have an ability to shoot more than one interceptor.”

But let’s leave aside the Pentagon’s disturbing habit of practically defining out of existence the horrific costs of even a single failure. We still have a senior official telling us before the latest North Korean test that the nation is behind the curve, defense-wise, and then right after that test, one of his colleagues sending the message that all’s well. Pardon me for not feeling incredibly confident.

The second major sign of scary North Korea-related thinking comes from a post in The Atlantic by the magazine’s national correspondent, Mark Bowden. It needs to be specified here that Bowden is the author of Black Hawk Down, the widely and rightly acclaimed account of the debacle that brought to an end the Clinton administration’s looney military intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s. So he’s not your typical bloviating mainstream media pundit.

And that’s why I was so startled to read these passages in his July 5 essay on the implications of the latest North Korean missile test. According to Bowden, Pyongyang’s capabilities don’t “fundamentally alter the military standoff that has been in place for decades.” Why not? Because North Korean dictator Kim Jong and his father before him

have long had the capability of inflicting mass casualties on South Korea and the nearly 30,000 American forces stationed there. In recent years, the range of Pyongyang’s missiles has included Guam and targets in Japan….So unless the lives of Americans on American soil are inherently more significant than the lives of those serving in that part of the world, or than Korean and Japanese lives, the game is the same. When death tolls are unthinkably high, it’s like multiplying infinity.”

No one of good will could dispute that, in an ideal world, all human lives – especially those of innocent civilians – are equally valuable, and indeed precious. But that’s not the kind of world we live in, and it’s a kind of world that’s been utterly unknown to our species since it wound up organizing itself into units that defined themselves at least to some extent by their distinctiveness from other units.

Today they’re called nation-states, but whether they have been family-based clans or kingdoms or empires or democratic republics or ideological dictatorships, they have invariably at some point determined that their differences could not be settled both peacefully and acceptably, and they’ve resorted to conflict. And whether their actions have been aggressive or defensive or somewhere in between, their actions have inevitably proceeded from the assumption that their subjects’ or citizens’ or comrades’ lives were, collectively, “more significant” than the collective lives of their opponents. What other assumption could they proceed from?

The same question – and answer – continually appears in peacetime, too. That’s why neither American forces nor the forces of any other countries seeking to advance humanitarian aims aren’t constantly being deployed to right wrongs across the globe – even when entire populations are being persecuted or worse. The leaderships of prospective “globocops” believe that their soldiers’ lives are “more significant” to them than the lives of those they would try to save.

And however despicably selfish these views might sound, does anyone out there, in the United States or elsewhere, really want their government to jettison this assumption and plunge into various overseas maelstroms or firestorms or powder kegs?

There is ample room for legitimate debate over how best to deal with North Korea (and Bowden’s Atlantic cover story this month does an excellent job of describing the strengths and weaknesses of the main options under discussion in Washington). There is also ample reason to suppose that some solutions could serve the interests of all the countries involved equally, or nearly equally, well.

But assuming that such win-win outcomes will be found is the height of irresponsibility. And there is absolutely no room for legitimate debate over whether the U.S. government should prioritize the interests (and lives) of its own soldiers and civilians first – at least not until Americans have the opportunity to consider the issue and unmistakably tell their leaders that their security is indeed no more important than that of, e.g., South Korea or Japan.

That, in a nutshell, is why the imminent development of North Korean missiles capable of launching nuclear attacks on American soil “fundamentally alters the military standoff” on the Korean peninsula. It’s also why I’ve concluded that the only acceptable option for the United States is to prioritize its own interests in the safest way possible, withdraw militarily from South Korea, deny the North any reason for attacking American territory, and let North Korea’s powerful neighbors decide what they can and can’t live with.

Although their lives can’t reasonably be seen by U.S. leaders as the equals of American lives, because geography makes their stakes in any outcome orders of magnitude greater, their judgments should be recognized as far superior.

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