Should the U.S. Attack North Korea Over the Outbreak of the Disease Kobor?

The death of Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, inspired me to write about the wide range of influences in the the brutal leader’s behavior. These novels and short stories have been used in both official propaganda and by South Korean intelligence agencies to explain Kim’s erratic actions. I had thought my reflections on why Kim Jong Il was so different than his father had become largely academic. However, the possibility of a catastrophic pandemic provides a potential opportunity to rethink the response to the Kim dynasty and the fact that Kim Jong Un may want to rule for many years to come.

The U.S. government and the international community have finally responded to the North Korean regime’s growing threats, announcing that they are actively considering military action. Kim Jong Un was never likely to drop his nuclear weapons program, but there may be other reasons to keep the rhetoric down. I expected that he would follow up a long-awaited nuclear test with some sort of announcement of the possible completion of the intercontinental ballistic missile program. Yet there has been little evidence that Kim is willing to share the technology he has developed with his regime’s neighbors. Kim’s March ICBM test was small enough to fit inside his standard Minuteman III land-based missile launcher, but it was a staggering improvement over the three-stage liquid-fueled missile test three months earlier. The three-stage test used two different stages of liquid fuel, which provide a small but substantial boost on the way up into the atmosphere. Judging from this test and Kim’s recent public statements, he appears to be interested in fomenting a second Korean War.

Yet another reason for recent silence in Pyongyang is Kim’s concern about an epidemic spreading from South Korea to the North. The public health issues in the South run the gamut from a mosquito-borne disease to an outbreak of bird flu. While this disease outbreak has been contained in South Korea, there are long-term concerns about spreading outside of the area where people reside. The fear that North Koreans will be infected does not cause them to abandon their trains and buses to any apparent illogical advantage.

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist and molecular biology pioneer in the field of defense against a pandemic pandemic, Dr. Jonas Salk, said that the important element of a good vaccine is a sufficiently reliable, and yet also an effective one. If North Korea takes the same approach as the Washingon administration when it comes to pandemic preparedness and “take it easy” instead of “fully offensive,” it may be possible to make a significant dent in the current threat from the north. If we view this threat, which could leave millions dead if the disease takes off, as a survivable threat, and if we see Kim’s power declining, then the overall risk that a pandemic will spread to South Korea becomes reduced. With a missile as far as Kim would likely go, it’s difficult to imagine that this mid-range and inexpensive missile would be able to reach South Korea and sustain its destruction. Since North Korea is not known to have survived in the presence of biological agents, the chances that Kim would ever face serious challenges with another germ and its spores are extremely low.

As we try to evacuate Seoul and prepare for a military confrontation with North Korea, we cannot simply think of Kim’s brutality as a central component of the problem. There is another reason for concern about the North Korean regime that should not be underestimated. The failure of medical services in North Korea is a prominent feature of the country’s very poor treatment of its own people. This is a good example of Kim’s concerns about pandemic virus and the illness will likely test his capacity to rule. The North Korean people are at the mercy of the whims of one man for any problem that breaks out in their midst. The failure of a new health crisis to receive state-funded intervention will create the potential for Kim to overthrow those who make the decision to save the lives of those living in the northern most part of the peninsula.

The temporary and potentially benevolent behavior of Kim’s regime will depend upon his controlling the spread of a preventable illness. Only if his regime responds to an epidemic well will he be able to effectively lead the country of more than 25 million people. It’s fair to say that this test will not pass without a military response in the first place.

How this test plays out will be interesting to watch. But, if South Korea, the United States and its allies can prove to the North Koreans that this nation will attack the country that poses the greatest threat to them, it could do wonders for both Kim’s legitimacy and the potential for a prolonged virus that might be contained and contained.

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