Koreans, Israelis and nukes

Why are Koreans so much braver than Israelis when faced with the threat of nuclear weapons?

Why are Koreans so much braver than Israelis when faced with the threat of nuclear weapons?

North Korea’s second underground nuclear test, much bigger than its first in October, 2006, did not cause panic in South Korea.

Even when North Korea conducted a short-range missile test only hours after the explosion, to underline that all of South Korea lies open to nuclear attack, South Koreans went about their business as usual. Nobody fled the country to escape from the threat.

How different from Israel, where a recent opinion poll conducted by the Centre for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University revealed that almost a quarter of Israel’s seven million citizens would consider leaving the country if Iran gets nuclear weapons.

Israeli leaders talk about an “existential threat” to the country’s survival, and warn almost daily that Iran is on the brink of developing the bomb.

There are major differences between the North Korea-South Korea relationship and the Israel-Iran one, but they just deepen the puzzle. The two Koreas have actually fought a war in which millions died, and the two countries’ troops still face each other across a massively fortified ceasefire line. Almost every year there are violent incidents along the border or on the seas around the Korean peninsula.

Israel and Iran, by contrast, have never fought a war, and do not even have a common border. Iran has no nuclear weapons, and denies that it has any intention of making any. Nor has Iran ever threatened war with Israel.

Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said that the Israeli state should be “wiped from the pages of history,” which makes him about the 20th leader of a Muslim country to voice that empty sentiment. However, he has never said that Iran should do that job, nor is he in any position to attack Israel. It is the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who controls Iran’s foreign policy and armed forces.

During his 20 years in office, Ali Khamenei has never been involved in a foreign war, nor has he ever echoed the remarks of the excitable Ahmadinejad. Whereas North Korea finds some pretext to declare that war with the South is imminent almost every year. So why are Israelis almost hysterical about the Iranian threat, while South Koreans are phlegmatic about the North Korean threat?

It gets even weirder. Both Israel and South Korea have a security guarantee from the United States, which ultimately includes the backing of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. But South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own and no ambitions of acquiring them, whereas Israel has hundreds of the things. In fact, it has enough nuclear weapons and delivery systems to destroy every Iranian city at the same time in a first strike.

Israelis are just as intelligent as Koreans, so there must be more going on here than meets the eye. Indeed, Israeli leaders know that Muslim leaders are not homicidal and suicidal maniacs, even if the general public is encouraged to believe in the myth of “mad mullahs.”

There has to be some genuine strategic distinction that explains the difference between the Israeli and the South Korean responses.

There is. It lies precisely in the fact that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, while South Korea does not. South Koreans trust in the U.S. nuclear deterrent, having no alternative. Israelis trust in their own deterrent, and enjoy the luxury of having the U.S. deterrent as back-up – but they also have other fish to fry.

Israel’s nuclear weapons are not meant only to deter a nuclear attack on Israel. They would serve that purpose quite well, but they are also configured to give Israel “extended” deterrence; that is, the ability to stop a variety of other things from happening by threatening to use nuclear weapons.

Those things would certainly include a conventional military attack on Israel, but they might extend to other political or technological developments in the Arab world as well.

In conformity with deterrence doctrine, Israel has never published a list of the things that it might seek to deter by the threat of nuclear weapons use, but all the Arab governments are keenly aware that such a list probably exists.

All Israeli military and political leaders see the regional monopoly of nuclear weapons that their country has had for the past 40 years as a huge strategic asset.

It would evaporate overnight if any Arab state could deliver a single nuclear weapon onto Israeli soil. Israel would then be deterred from launching a nuclear first strike because of the certainty of devastating retaliation.

Would an Iranian nuclear weapon, if such a thing existed, also negate Israel’s “extended” deterrence? Only if the Iranian regime were willing to risk the virtual annihilation of Iran for the sake of the Arabs, which most Arabs would doubt. But Israelis have always taken Islamic solidarity more seriously than most Muslims do.

So the South Koreans stay cool about North Korean nuclear weapons despite the eccentricity of the North Korean regime, while the Israel security establishment worries about Iranian nuclear weapons for reasons quite different from those it mentions in public. And since Israelis are a people haunted by the Holocaust, the government’s rhetoric about an “existential threat” is taken literally by the population, some of whom respond with fantasies of flight.

They are only fantasies. They aren’t actually leaving.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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