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KUHNER: Is the sky falling?

A dark lesson for North Korea

A Serbian nationalist assassinated Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. What should have been a local conflict in the Balkans triggered the World War I. The end result was millions dead, the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the subsequent rise of fascism and communism. An outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula today could lead to a similar, disastrous fate — World War III.

Events are slowly spinning out of control. North Korea's Stalinist dictator, Kim Jong-un, is playing a very dangerous game. His bellicose nationalism is reckless, threatening to plunge the region into war. In the wake of United Nations sanctions due to Pyongyang's nuclear test in February, Mr. Kim has declared a "state of war" against America and South Korea. His totalitarian regime has moved rockets and missile sites to target U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan. He has warned that Pyongyang may launch a nuclear attack on American forces in South Korea. Meanwhile, Chinese forces are mobilizing near the Yalu River, which separates China from North Korea's hermit state.

In response, Washington has ordered U.S. troops in South Korea to be mobilized. Fighter jets have been sent to the Philippines. A missile-defense system has been deployed to Guam. A U.S. naval carrier and stealth bombers — capable of carrying a nuclear payload — have participated in military exercises with South Korean forces. In short, the situation is grave, and getting worse.

Just like World War I, when a nationalist fanatic was able to spark a global conflict due to a single violent act, Mr. Kim has the ability to lob a missile or rocket into Seoul. This would lead to a massive counter-attack by South Korea's army. A military conflagration would consume the Korean Peninsula. Millions could perish.

Mr. Kim is not only brutal and volatile. The communist strongman is irrational and unhinged. He is known for his lavish lifestyle, heavy bouts of drinking and partying, and almost unlimited paranoia combined with megalomania. Yet, as Pyongyang's Stalinists enrich themselves, ordinary North Koreans exist in a living hell. Mass starvation is rampant. The country is littered with slave labor camps. They live in a murderous police state. Basic things, such as electricity, bread and clean drinking water are luxuries. North Korea is the perfect embodiment of a rogue regime: a psychotic Third World basket case armed with nukes.

For all his lunacy, however, Mr. Kim has the world — especially, the United States — over a barrel. He now holds the ultimate power of whether America gets dragged into another major land war in Asia. The reason: Our vast global empire is leaving us at the mercy of local warlords. The United States has more than 29,000 troops in South Korea, acting as a tripwire against a potential North Korean invasion. Moreover, Washington has a security treaty with Seoul, which compels us to defend South Korea in the event of an attack. China has defense commitments to North Korea. Therefore, if Pyongyang fires — even accidentally — a missile into Seoul, South Korea's inevitable furious military response would force America to join the conflict. China, which has a huge land army, would defend its North Korean client state. Our troops would be caught in the middle. American and Chinese soldiers would be rushing at each other's throats. World War I started in Sarajevo; World War III may start in Seoul or Pyongyang.

The lesson is clear: Empire leads to perpetual war and national ruin. It destroyed ancient Rome, imperial Britain and Soviet Russia. If we are not careful, it will be our doom as well. A major conflict on the Korean Peninsula would result in thousands — if not tens of thousands — of dead Americans, trillions of dollars squandered and a protracted war with no end in sight. America would be bled white.

More than 35,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. It proved to be a bloody, vicious stalemate — a precursor to our debacle in Vietnam. President Dwight Eisenhower, a wise conservative realist, managed to extricate America from that military quagmire. He preserved an independent South Korea. He achieved peace with honor.

Our troops, however, have been there long enough. South Korea is a wealthy nation. It is a vibrant democracy with a highly educated and talented population. It is one of the Asian tigers. It has a huge military capable of defending its borders. Seoul no longer needs and should not have U.S. troops stationed on its soil.

The Korean Peninsula is not worth a potential global war. If Mr. Kim is foolish enough to attack South Korea, it will lead to the downfall of his odious regime. It would be the act of a madman. Pyongyang is no match for Seoul's modern, sophisticated and powerful military. The United States, however, is not the world's policeman. We should not be meddling in other peoples' affairs. It's time for America to come home.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a radio commentator in Boston.

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