A Matter of Timing: Thoughts on North Korea

March 12, 2003

A Matter of Timing: Thoughts on North Korea

The arguments advanced by critics of the Bush Administration's current policy for dealing with the nuclear challenge from North Korea are fundamentally flawed.

The arguments advanced by critics of the Bush Administration's current policy for dealing with the nuclear challenge from North Korea are fundamentally flawed.  Only the assumption that they will miss no apparent opportunity to bash Bush explains why such otherwise intelligent and experienced people miss the essentials of this grave and delicate confrontation, which make matters of time and timing of the utmost importance.  

Leave aside the irony that many of the critics who demand that the United States "go it alone" in bargaining with Pyongyang, just as Pyongyang demands, are the same voices insisting that the US must not go it alone against Iraq.  It was Pyongyang that called this showdown.  The President's  "axis of evil" speech, his on-the-record "loathing" of Kim Jong-il to Bob Woodword, and his dispatch of Jim Kelly last fall to "out" the North Koreans on their uranium enrichment program may have contributed to the timing of their decisions.  We shall have to await access to Pyongyang's archives to determine this.  But it was the strategic and political logic of the situation that surely governed.  North Korean nuclear ambitions and activities have a long history.  They were perhaps delayed, but not suspended, and much less jettisoned, by the 1994 Framework Agreement.  To play the role the Kim wants them to play, indeed desperately needs them to play, in intimidation, extortion, profit making, and deterrence of punishment for his excesses - all crucial in his eyes to his regime's survival - his nuclear capabilities extant and potential had to be explicitly avowed sooner or later.  And he had every incentive to time the initiation of this campaign of brinkmanship when the United States was visibly preoccupied elsewhere, namely with Iraq.   

The critics contend that this preoccupation represents the wrong priorities and that North Korea is the more dangerous threat.  The latter point is very true and very important to getting the matter of strategic timing right.  But as a practical matter, in a gang fight it makes sense to engage the nearest opponent first, especially when he is the more easily subdued. 

The critics contend that the Bush administration is "merely" playing for time.  This is exactly what the administration is and should be doing.   Playing for time is exactly the right strategy in a situation like this one.  Such a strategy requires good answers to two questions:  

First, how much time is there to play for?   

This is a function of the rise curve in North Korea's plutonium separation, uranium enrichment, weapon fabrication, and delivery system efforts.  This author is no expert on these matters; and even the best official intelligence seems to leave a good deal of uncertainty.  It is clear we are already in or entering the first phase of North Korea's nuclear status, when it has one, two, then several nuclear weapons.  From this posture the DPRK can project a frightening image and attempt risky extortionist policies.  The next phase comes when the North has upwards of, say, ten nuclear weapons mated to reliable delivery systems of varying range, accurate enough to strike military infrastructure in the ROK, Japan, and maybe farther away, and survivable enough to be available for a second or third strike.  This posture will be far more dangerous because Pyongyang will believe it lowers the risk entailed by its own aggressive behavior.  This is the situation which must be averted.  In this situation the DPRK will aggressively seek and probably get the payoffs of nuclear blackmail, keep and enlarge the means of nuclear blackmail, have enough extra to sell to the most dangerous buyers, and ever more brazenly seek to extort benefits.  This scenario is highly likely to lead to war on the Korean peninsula, either from Pyongyang overplaying its hand, or because the US cannot allow it to continue. But these conditions are some time, perhaps years, down the road.  The best possible estimate of this timeline is vital to our strategy

The second question to answer when playing for time is: What are you doing with the time? 

Part of the answer is suggested by the deployment of B-52s and B-1s to Guam.  One should always seek to improve ones military options.  The North has called this threatening.  I, for one, am glad they see it that way.  One would hope it has the sobering effect intended.  It is a hedge against the failure of diplomacy.  But it is also contributing to the conditions for diplomacy.  One of the necessary conditions for diplomacy to bring this confrontation to a remotely tolerable conclusion is that the hammer of U.S. military deterrence and enforcement in Korea be in the best possible shape.  This will require time and the successful conclusion of the confrontation with Iraq. 

The other requirement for success also needs time: The construction of a lock-step consensus among the US, the ROK, Japan, Russia and China, on the conditions of bargaining and the content of bargains (carrots and sticks) with Pyongyang.  Secretary Powell's trip to the region demonstrates that the Bush Administration is working on that at the highest level and priority (while recognizing that the Chinese are the biggest problem).  When and how this kind of a lock-step coalition can be created are uncertain.  But it is an absolute requirement for a peaceful settlement in which the DPRK is verifiably denuclearized or rendered tolerable as a "semi-nuclear" state because it is reliably deterred, contained, and quarantined.  It is not political cover or an excuse for delay by the U.S.

Paradoxically, North Korea is also playing for time, or rather against it.  One might think that time is on the side of the DPRK.  But this is not so, except in the longer run and only if we (and others) are passive.  As Kim appears to see it, he must try his utmost to extract a critical "win" in terms of political recognition, security assurances, and economic tribute while Washington and half of America's Army divisions are focused on Iraq and our needed partners are divided by the Iraq issue.  After Iraq, Kim's window of opportunity is likely to be closed by the U.S. military recovery faster than it is opened by his nuclear buildup. 

The great danger now is that Kim might overplay his hand from a sense of urgency, that time is running out, forcing us to drop on him the hammer that we now have in place (which nonetheless is big enough to assure, shall we say, regime change). 

Making political concessions to the blackmailer now when conditions are bad and the real threat is some way down the road would be a big mistake.  Opening formal, bilateral negotiations on security assurances and aid is the first concession the North Koreans demand, the first of many.  We should probably make this concession eventually.  But it should only be made when political-diplomatic and military conditions are better and make the prospects of a tolerable, peaceful solution at least plausible. 

Bush Administration critics should stop yelling at him and start whispering to Kim:  "Calm down!  We are working up a salad of carrots and sticks that you'll have to eat.  But you'll love it!"

Fritz W. Ermarth is Director of National Security Programs at the Nixon Center. He is also a part-time Senior Analyst in the Strategies Group of Science Applications International Corporation. He served several tours on the NSC staff, served as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (1988-93,) and retired from the CIA in 1998.