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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Victor Davis Hanson On The Growing Korea Crisis

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HH: I am now joined by Victor Davis Hanson, military historian and classicist, Victor, a good April to you, thanks for joining us.

VDH: Glad to be here, Hugh, thanks for having me.

HH: By the way, I want to compliment you on something. I have been working my way through, with Dr. Larry Arnn, the Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert Strassler…

VDH: Yeah.

HH: And you wrote the intro to this. This is really a beautiful book.

VDH: Yeah, Robert Strassler was the editor. He did a great job.

HH: And so that’s part of our show every Friday for the last three weeks. But now we’re talking, and I asked Larry Arnn about this. We’ve got North Korea and South Korea, Japan, China and the United States, and a powder keg over there. Do you see this as a crisis, or as a television, made for television drama that really doesn’t have stakes to it?

VDH: Well, in the abstract, I feel like it’s the same old, same old. But in my heart, I feel like there’s something different this time. Maybe it’s because this Kim Jong Un is new and untried, maybe it’s because we have a new president in South Korea, maybe it’s because China and Japan are really at loggerheads over these disputed islands, and maybe it’s because our new secretary of State doesn’t inspire confidence given his record. And then we have a president of the United States who in Carter fashion for four years has sort of projected the image that the United States might not, or probably would not intervene in a regional dispute. And you add all of that in perfect storm fashion, you get the feeling that some lunatic might think, I think wrongly, but might think that he could get concessions from the West without imperiling his regime. So I think that’s what we’re up against.

HH: Well, last hour, Max Boot pointed out that the Bush administration did not do so well vis-à-vis North Korea, and that at least President Obama’s team has dispatched the F-22 and a B-2 bomber, implicit in the flying of the B-2 is a nuclear threat, isn’t it, Victor Davis Hanson?

VDH: I think it is, but I don’t see, we didn’t have F-22’s then under the Bush administration. And we had John Bolton for a while that was prominent in some of the negotiations. And whether we like it or not, I think people thought Condoleezza Rice was more experienced than John Kerry. But all that, you know, we have a new leader in both of the Koreas now, and that’s a problem. And we’ve got an escalation in the rhetoric with Japan and China. And whatever one thought about Bush, they didn’t know what he was going to do on any given day, and that’s always an advantage in nuclear poker.

HH: There is this new South Korean president, and I brought this up a couple of times, and after the break, I’ll talk about it with Michael Rubin and Michael O’Hanlon. She has gone on record as saying to her generals, and I don’t have the translation right in front of me, don’t wait, don’t consider politics, respond if they do anything, against the backdrop of the shelling of the island and the submarine sinking of the ship. That’s like a hair trigger for the peninsula. Is that alarming?

VDH: It is, because it sort of shows you that for the last, the sunshine policy of the last two decades, whether it’s accurate or not, it’s perceived as losing deterrence on the part of South Korea because of these incidents that have been serial in nature. So I think that the South Korea president starts to think you know what, I’ve got to restore deterrence so that there’s a zero tolerance for aggression from North Korea. And if I don’t do that, they’re going to keep doing it and doing it and doing it. The problem with this is that everybody’s doing that. Japan has woken up and said you know what, China keeps getting into our waters, keeps overflying, and we’re going to restore deterrence by saying no, no. And then when you have an administration that sort of loudly has announced the  last three years that we have too many nuclear weapons, or that we’re more or less comparable to Russia in our strategic arsenal, when Russia doesn’t have the same number of nuclear clients that could, non-nuclear clients that could be nuclear, it’s kind of disturbing, because after all, South Korea or Taiwan or Japan or Germany could all make nukes like they do, you know, Toyotas or Kias or Mercedes. But the reason they don’t is they count on the United States on having an overwhelming nuclear umbrella unmatched by any country in the world. So when you talk about unilaterally, or even in discussions with the Russians, lowering the thresholds of deployable weapons, these countries start looking around and start thinking well, we’re going to have to do something on our own to establish deterrence, and that’s kind of scary.

HH: Now Victor Davis Hanson, when I say August, 1914, I mean something…would you explain to the audience what that connotes, and how we might be in that kind of a situation at this point?

VDH: Well, it was a period on the eve of World War One where everybody said they weren’t going to go to war, and that it was unfathomable. And there was anger. Germany had deep-seated angers that it didn’t get the reputation that it thought it deserved, and the French had been stung by the 1871 Franco-Prussian War. And states starting mobilizing over the Balkan incidents with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and it kind of got out of control is what I’m saying, and everybody thought that it would be manageable when the war broke out. And of course, within six weeks, there was a line from Switzerland to the Baltic, and the next thing we knew, eight million people were killed in the next 40 months.

HH: So do we have a situation where you’ve got the South Korean rhetoric up, the crazy boy doing, just it’s a bizarre series of things that he’s been doing, and threats they’ve been making. I actually think it’s a different degree than what his father used to do. Do you agree with me on that?

VDH: Yeah, I do, and I think he’s trying to show the generals that I’m reliable, I’m tough, don’t overthrow me, or don’t pressure me. And he’s trying to, obviously, he’s trying to shake down the West as his regime has in the past for food and aid, and he’s worried about these new U.N. regulations. The only thing that I think we should be doing is I don’t think we should be talking as loudly, or making these gestures with maybe just one or two B-2’s, but we should bring an overwhelming force and keep quiet about it, and bring in a lot more than we have. We need three or four carriers out there.

HH: We only have one carrier in the Pacific. There’s only one, right? It’s the George Washington, is based in…

VDH: Yeah, I’d have two or three of them out there if we could get them in there, and I would have a lot of deployable Marines, transport carriers, and I would just not say a word. And I would have Kerry going to Taiwan, I’d have him go to South Korea and Japan, and get our allies all on board, and try to talk to China. And you know, China has to realize that they broke the agreement. We had a subordinate call South Korea that could come, go nuclear, and Japan could go nuclear, and Taiwan, and they didn’t. And they had one called North Korea, and they did go nuclear. And that was a violation of an understood protocol. And for them, North Korea is sort of like a rabid pit bull that they have on a leash, and every once in a while, they drop the leash on the ground and kind of small when it barks, and then they sort of pick it up very reluctantly. And they think that’s cute. And we’ve got to tell them, you can’t keep doing that.

HH: Now in terms of the possibility of escalation, how quickly would events move there? And what would your advice be to the President to be prepared to do, if, for example, they launch just a salvo or two, which would still kill a whole bunch of people in South Korea in Seoul?

VDH: Yeah, my problem with that is that under tradition strategy, if they did, if they committed an act of aggression, and then we would retaliate commissary, in kind, and that was tit for tat until they got tired of it. But the problem is they have sort of a one shot punch. They have all these artillery pieces and Scud-type missiles that they could send immediately and damage this economic miracle in South Korea, and they could do it very quickly. And we couldn’t do it. And I’m afraid that if they decided to go to war, they could do that before we could stop it for the most part. Our advantage would be deterrence, and by telling them if you do that, there’s no more North Korea. But I’m not sure that they either believe that, or that at that point, they would worry too much.

HH: I’m not sure I believe it. I don’t know that this President, you mentioned George W. Bush, no one quite ever knew what he was going to do. I think most people would assume this President wouldn’t do anything. Is that fair?

VDH: Well, you say that, Hugh, because he pulled everybody out of Iraq when he really didn’t need to, and it was understood the Iraqis sort of wanted us to have a residual force. And then the situation in Afghanistan was one of constant talk about getting out as quickly as possible. He gave five serial deadlines to the Iranians, he’s declared the Falklands, the Malvinas that were neutral on that issue, so the world around us thinks that the United States is no better enemy, and no worse friend.

HH: On that sober note, Victor Davis Hanson, thanks for joining us. Read everything that Victor writes at

End of interview.


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