This is how you keep Kim Jong Il from proliferating. Make him understand that his survival would be hostage to the actions of whatever terrorist group he sold his weapons to. Any terrorist detonation would be assumed to have his address on it. The United States would then return postage. Automaticity of this kind concentrates the mind.
This policy has a hitch, however. It works only in a world where there is but a single rogue nuclear state. Once that club expands to two, the policy evaporates, because a nuclear terror attack would no longer have a single automatic return address.
Which is another reason why keeping Iran from going nuclear is so important. With North Korea there is no going back. But Iran is not there yet. One rogue country is tolerable because it can be held accountable. Two rogue countries guarantees undeterrable and therefore inevitable nuclear terrorism.
In other words, what Krauthammer is saying is that North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons makes it all that much more important that we stop Iran from getting them. If what Krauthammer meant was that it's a bad idea to have two enemies with nukes instead of one, he'd be right. But that's not what he's saying; what he's saying is his little test of deterrance only works so long as Iran doesn't also have nukes, because if more than one enemy of ours possesses them, we won't know whose country to utterly destroy if a terrorist sets one off in our own country. As you can imagine, I have many, many problems with this approach.
First of all, Krauthammer just breezily dismisses the fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons. It's not even at issue. For him it's "North Korea has nukes. Too bad we let it get that far but there's nothing we can do about it now." Krauthammer makes the assumption that the only way to "diarm the regime is to destroy it" and that China could do it through sanctions or we could do it by invading North Korea, but neither will happen. But we cannot simply assume that the only way North Korea will give up their nukes is if they're made to. For one thing, if North Korea wanted nukes so bad, why were they willing to sign the Agreed Framework with us? You could argue that they were deterred by a very credible threat of force, but you could also argue that they were getting something out of the deal, and they only again pursued nukes when we failed to lift the sanctions and failed to honor the provision whereby we provide them with light-water reactors.
I suppose the theory behind this approach is "Kim Jong-Il is a madman who cannot be reasoned with; we can only deter him." But that can't be assumed either. Consider these facts; North Korea repudiated the Agreed Framework in 2003 and nothing happened. It tested a long-range missile earlier this summer and nothing happened. It threatens to conduct a test, and nothing happens. It conducts a test and we're talking about...sanctions. Does this sound like the actions of a madman? No, this sounds like the actions of someone who either a) wants nukes and knows we won't stop him from getting them or b) wants our attention and keeps ratcheting up the aggressiveness to get it, or even a combination of both. It's entirely possible that the North Koreans would like to exchange their nuclear program for a security guarantee and significant food and or economic aid but if they can't get that, then they'll just keep the nukes to keep us or anyone else from trying anything funny with them (which by the way, is an entirely reasonable lesson to learn from our Iraq adventure, and one that Iran appears to have learned as well.)
Secondly, why is it that North Korea giving/selling nukes to terrorists is supposed to be our first and foremost concern? Again, you have to think Kim Jong-Il is nuts to even consider doing such a thing; even the most sheltered leader must know that were he to give a nuke away to terrorists who would then turn around and detonate it on our soil would be the the recipient of an almost immediate and overwhelming nuclear holocaust, right? If anything, Krauthammer is advocating with his approach a nearly complete ceding of our authority and influence in Asia to China. Why isn't that loss of influence a problem too? He almost sounds like Levin and Hulsman, who I wrote about in this post. I disagree with them, but at least they're willing to come out and say that we ought to give up the game in that part of Asia. Krauthammer doesn't imply it, so much as he lets you figure out for yourself as you're reading the column.
Third, why is it safe to assume that terrorists could only get a nuke from North Korea? Haven't we been harping since the 1990's on the "loose nukes" roaming around Russia? Krauthammer's deterrance scheme states quite explicitly that any nuclear detonation on our soil will be automatically attributed to North Korea, and will result in retaliation. If it is in fact possible for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons somewhere else, even if it's highly unlikely, this deterrance model goes right out the window. Bin Laden will be sitting in a cave somewhere watching CNN's coverage of the detonation in L.A. thinking to himself "Well those Koreans are godless heathens anyway...allahu akhbar!" No, the only reason Krauthammer proposes this deterrance is because it implicates the actions of Iran as well: "We must act on Iran so our fine model of deterrance against North Korea continues to work!"
And lastly, perhaps Krauthammer can explain to us why this model of deterrance is supposed to work on a madman in North Korea where he himself told us it had no possible chance of working on a madman in Iraq. After all, our concern with Saddam was that he had WMDs that he would give away to terrorists who would somehow sneak them into the U.S. and detonate/use them here, right? As Krauthammer says "automaticity...concentrates the mind", by which he means that the threat of overwhelming retaliation will deter even a nut like Kim Jong-Il. Even according to the neo-cons Saddam was less of a threat; only Cheney was saying he already had nukes (most said they were "imminent") and nobody was saying he was working on a missile program that would allow him to launch one over here. And even if he had acquired nukes, why wouldn't this deterrant have worked on an Iraq in nearly the same circumstances? Better yet: we could've said "If a nuke blows up here, we're not going to care who did it; we'll nuke you both." That would have given Iraq and North Korea incentive to work together to prevent the spread of their nukes to terrorists or other parties, right?
Look, I'm not dumb and neither is anybody reading this; I think we can agree what's going on here. The fact of the matter is Krauthammer and his ilk don't care that North Korea has nukes. They don't care because North Korea is in Asia and Asia is boring. They don't care because North Koreans are not swarthy Isalmic fundamentalists. They don't care because North Koreans weren't on the planes that crashed on 9/11. They don't care because North Korea doesn't have any oil. They don't care because they can't democratize the entire Middle East via North Korea. They don't care because we're not in a "clash of civilizations" with North Korea. They don't care because containing North Korea is "old school". They don't care because they don't think the threat China poses us in the future is in anyway comparable to the threat that roving bands of poorly armed but highly determined terrorists pose to us now. They don't care because North Korea isn't a threat to Israel. They just don't care. All my questioning of Krauthammer's approach is really only an exercise in spotting hipocrisy and intellectual inconsistency/dishonesty, because Krauthammer doesn't even believe in this approach. He doesn't care enough to craft a reasonable, consistent, practical approach to North Korea, because North Korea is a minor issue compared to the incredible danger of Iran, a nation that is years away from a nuclear bomb, whose elected government we've helped overthrow once, and whose borders we attempted to park a faithful ally on.
So know this. Krauthammer is in the camp of people who just don't care that one of the most backwards, tyrannical and potentially unstable countries on the planet has acquired nuclear weapons, and that such country resides in an area of considerable future importance to us and is allied with a country that will in a matter of decades rival us for world power. People like him and people sympathetic to his views are in charge right now. Frankly, that keeps me up at night far longer than worrying about Iran getting nukes does.