The latest fury of worry about North Korea comes today in the form of a North Korean missile test. “North Korea appears to be preparing for a long-range missile launch that could possibly reach the United States,” writes ABC News Reporter Joohee Cho.
Pay attention to this phrase in that article: Could possibly. What does could possibly mean? It sounds a bit like Sarah Palin’s favorite phrase, also too.
Could possibly means that something might might happen. What this article is really saying is that North Korea looks like it might be getting ready to launch a missile that might might be able to reach the United States.
Of course, that’s not how most Americans are reading this article, and others like it. The message that they’re getting is that North Korea is going to launch a missile that can hit the United States.
Oh, and when we talk about that missile perhaps being capable of reaching the United States, are we talking about a nuclear weapon exploding over Los Angeles? No. When these news reports talk about a missile that “could possibly reach the United States”, the “United States” means the closest part of the United States, which, from North Korea, is that little tiny island in far western Alaska, where, as Sarah Palin informed us, when the air is clear, you can see Russia, and Putin rearing his head into our airspace.
Now, it’s Kim Jong-il who’s rearing his head into Alaska’s airspace, or a little corner of it, possibly, maybe.
Keep in mind that the same journalistic organizations that are now reporting on a North Korean threat are the same journalistic organizations that told reported back in 2002 and 2003 on the threat of weapons of mass destruction from Iraq. Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, they said, threatened the entire world.
The mistake of invading Iraq was to confuse domestic and regional posturing with a global threat. Iraq didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction at all. They said that they did, not because the Iraqi government was planning aggression, but because the Iraqi government was afraid of aggression. Americans only considered Iraqi politics at the cartoonish level of Saddam Hussein being a “bad guy”, without bothering to wonder if other motivations might be at work.
We ought not to make the same mistake with North Korea now. Yes, North Korea has a rotten government that abuses the people within its borders. Yes, North Korea has nuclear weapons. However, there’s no clear reason to think that North Korea has any plans to use its nuclear weapons and missile technology for anything other than Saddam-Hussein-style defensive posturing.
In interpreting North Korea’s sudden nuclear display, consider what else is going on in North Korean politics. The current leader, Kim Jong-il, appears to be seriously ill. Reports indicate that he has just chosen a successor, a sign that North Korea’s leader is preparing to die. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles tests look an awful lot like a display of strength by a government that is worried about its vulnerability.
Even as Saddam Hussein made blustering shows of defiance to the world, there was little actual reason for the world to worry about him. The same appears to be true about Kim Jong-il. Let’s not make the mistake of 2003 again, and accept the megalomaniacal posturings of a contained dictator at face level.