I try not to think about 2002 and 2003. America was a truly awful thing to see while it was pregaming the Iraq War. Watching the American public, desperate as it was to lash out incoherently in post-9/11 rage, swallow one tablespoon of horseshit after another as the previous administration engaged in the greatest marketing campaign in history was not pleasant. It was a real reminder – not a Teabagger's "Obama = Hitler" reminder – of how thin the line between American-style democracy and fascism really is.
For me, one of the most frustrating things about the argument for war in Iraq was that it was transparently ludicrous (even if believable to the average Hannity fan) when applied to Iraq but entirely accurate regarding another threat in which the Bush folks had no interest: North Korea. I am not exactly a neocon. My AEI membership application would likely be rejected. But if ever there was a logical, persuasive argument to be made for "regime change", North Korea would be it. Still is, in fact.
Consider everything we were expected to believe about Iraq apply it to North Korea. Secret plan to develop nuclear weapons? Iraq never got off the drawing board while North Korea developed an elaborate underground program that has produced functioning warheads. Unpredictable, dangerous dictator? Check. Human rights abuses? It's doubtful that anyone can match North Korea on that account. Proliferation risk? Iraq had nothing to proliferate except imaginary WMDs to sell to imaginary Hussein-friendly jihadists while North Korea has peddled its nuclear technology to Iran, Syria, and anyone else with hard currency. Destabilizing to the region? Iraq was largely irrelevant on the global stage while NK is a geopolitical powder keg. Threat to our interests and allies? Well, Iraq could lob some 70s-vintage Scud missiles with conventional warheads at Israel; NK can deliver a nuclear warhead to Japan or Seoul. Belligerent aggression in international affairs? Check.
Since the Iraq storyline was actually true regarding North Korea, why didn't it interest the Bush administration? We can only speculate. Take your pick: Lack of plausible connections to terrorism. Overriding desire to establish an American puppet state in the Middle East. Lack of, um, "resources of strategic value." Military preferences (North Korea's military, although horribly trained with antiquated equipment, is very large and considered highly fanatical; Iraq's numbnuts military would prove far easier to pound into oblivion). Unacceptable risk to allies, namely South Korea and Japan. Pissing off China. And so on.
Whatever the reasons, North Korea has only gotten crazier and more dangerous in the interim, and the president who prided himself as the great protector of American interests merely punted the issue to his successor. The bizarre North Korean leadership seems intent on A) provoking war or B) provoking concessions without realizing that it is actually provoking war. On the Sunday morning circuit, John McCain noted that China's coddling (or at least blind-eye-turning) toward its backward neighbor is the primary problem in the region. He implies, and it is hard to disagree, that South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. would gladly turn NK into a charred bomb crater if not for fear of Chinese retaliation.
This raises two very interesting questions, in my opinion:
1. Why is China willing to ignore or even actively condone North Korea's dangerous, unpredictable behavior?
2. What does South Korea actually want out of this situation?
As odd as it seems, South Korea and China may be acting based on a shared interest in maintaining the status quo. Why? Let's just say China does not relish the thought of a North Korean collapse followed by hundreds of thousands of refugees swarming across the Yalu. Similarly, South Korea recoils at the prospect of a sudden reunification (or proxy thereof) making its government and society responsible for millions of homeless, impoverished, brainwashed, and unskilled ex-Communists looking for handouts.
Although it is implausible, the preferred outcome appears to be a stable if somewhat hostile North Korea. There is little doubt that American, Japanese, and South Korean military power could eliminate the government and military infrastructure of North Korea if desired. But who desires it? We don't want to spend the money or manpower on another war. South Korea doesn't want to be forced to fill a North Korean power vacuum or face the prospect of China doing so in the wake of a war. China wants as little to do with North Korean affairs as possible and needs a million refugees like it needs an asshole on its elbow.
So. Where does this situation go from here? If I was better at game theory I would try to describe the bizarre equilibrium that the players have reached on the Korean peninsula over the past 30 years and hazard a guess at what happens if North Korea continues to upset it. As it stands, though, I know nothing beyond the obvious facts that nothing good is going to come of this situation and that South Korea's political leadership can only take so much provocation without responding.