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Iraq worked so well, is North Korea next?

Updated: May 30, 2013 2:59PM

Boy, I said to myself, it’s been a while — a week, maybe two — since we’ve heard something nutty from North Korea. Almost as if it realized it couldn’t compete with the Boston bombing and decided to dial back. But something about crazy craves a spotlight, and when I went trolling for North Korean news it took 10 seconds to snag something weird: They have decided to try an American citizen, Washington state tour operator Kenneth Bae, for attempting to overthrow the North Korean government.

Before you say, “about time someone tried that” remember poor Bae, arrested in November, faces the death penalty and didn’t really try to overthrow the government, it seems, but rather was working to help North Korean orphans. Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe.

And there is reason not to worry too much about his safety — typically, when North Korea feels neglected, it turns up the heat under whatever American has strayed into its clutches until a former U.S. president makes the long trip to Pyongyang, flatters the swollen ego of their beloved leader and returns with the captive in tow. Both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have drawn this duty, so I guess it’s George W. Bush’s turn.

The strangeness of North Korea can’t be overstated. It’s as if World War II ended in a draw, and the Soviets let Hitler and the Nazis stay in East Germany, where his grandson, Jerry Hitler, remains in power to this day.

That’s North Korea, a relic of World War II, when centuries of Japanese occupation turned into Soviet and Chinese domination. The leader they installed, Kim Il Sung, was unpopular, so the Communists built a Stalin-like cult of personality around him, molding Kim into the “Great Leader,” a role passed along for 70 years, like a genetic disease, first to his son, the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il and, since 2011, to his grandson, the “Supreme Leader,” Kim Jong Un.

When it’s not capturing Americans (or Japanese civilians, another favorite) whatever Kim is on the throne likes to rattle the nuclear saber. The Orwellian-named Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee — an arm of the North Korean government, like most everything in that unfortunate land — earlier this month announced looming nuclear war:

“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is inching close to a thermonuclear war,” it claimed, “due to the evermore undisguised hostile actions of the United States and the South Korean puppet warmongers.”

Reaction here, thank God, was general amusement. Diplomats scurried, but how could the rest of us not smile at their “Mouse That Roared” belligerence? The world was a smiling cartoon lion, holding a tiny rodent by a claw while it sputters and wheels its little fists in the air. “Puppet warmongers”? That’s a line from a 1970s National Lampoon piece.

Really, doesn’t the North Korean statement take you back? Just the word, “thermonuclear” — it’s like being handed a freshly mimeographed worksheet, gazing in nostalgic rapture at its purplish print and taking a whiff of its chemical scent. Ahhhh, fourth grade.

Of course, we shouldn’t smirk too much. North Korean really isn’t funny. There’s a bedrock of horror under all the posturing. In the mid-1990s, after the collapse of the Soviets put its economy into free fall, up to 3.5 million North Koreans starved to death. But those statistics just sit on the page because North Korea is such a hermetically sealed police state that scant visual documentation of the disaster reached the outside world.

Still, humor tinged with sorrow is better than snapping at the North Korean bait, which some Americans are all too keen to do.

“Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too Late” read a headline, not in the Onion, where it belongs, but atop a New York Times op-ed piece not too long ago, penned by Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas history professor (Texas was drawn into the conflict when Austin was noted on a North Korean photo of a map of possible nuclear missile targets).“The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests,” he writes. “The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched. The United States should use a precise airstrike to render the missile and its mobile launcher inoperable.”

Sigh. We really learn nothing, don’t we? Not yet extricated from our last let’s-bomb-him-on-general-principles war — dislodging Saddam Hussein and the decadelong slog that followed — will we now be goaded into rushing to defang North Korea’s mini-Stalin?

That’s insane. Professor Suri finds war after such a strike “unlikely” but “not inconceivable” and, in that case, “unfortunate.” Yeah professor, a lot more unfortunate for the U.S. soldiers who would die there than for the Texas academic who cheered them to the depot, on their way to join the 5,000 Americans slain over the past decade fighting in Iraq. We don’t think of them either — “Mission Accomplished!” But that’s another column.

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