Averting the Unthinkable

December 1, 2003 Topic: Security Regions: Asia

Averting the Unthinkable

Mini Teaser: Regime change is the only realistic policy.

by Author(s): Stephen J. Morris

The imminent prospect of North Korea becoming a nuclear power is the most severe threat to the security of the United States and the rest of the Western world today. The anxiety that this prospect brings with it is compounded by the fact that there are no realistic prospects of solution to this threat being offered.

Under pressure from allied and domestic opinion, the Bush Administration has reluctantly entered into multilateral negotiations with Pyongyang. While there may be very good political and military reasons for negotiating with such an intractable enemy at this moment, there is little prospect for these negotiations succeeding. The reason is simple: any agreement to ensure North Korean nuclear disarmament entails intrusive international inspections, and Pyongyang will never allow such inspections--regardless of past or future treaty obligations. If the United States is serious about preventing North Korea from becoming a nuclear power, it must face the necessity of regime change in Pyongyang.

Regime change does not necessarily entail the overthrow of communist party rule in North Korea. What it does entail is the replacement of the current totalitarian dictatorship led by Kim Jong-il. For both strategic and moral reasons, a democratic North Korea is in America's best interest. But an authoritarian dictatorship on the Chinese model, committed to economic and social reforms, would be an acceptable second choice. While some Western analysts recognize the necessity of a structural transformation of North Korea's economy, they do not comprehend that this entails a regime change, imagining instead that the necessary reform process could be transacted by the present leadership.

Regime change in North Korea will not occur voluntarily. Coercion--preferably the unarmed sort and with at least the participation of China--will be necessary. But America should prepare itself to go to war, with allies if possible, alone if necessary. Yet few of those negotiating with Pyongyang--least of all our South Korean allies, who adhere to a demonstrably bankrupt policy of appeasement laced with bribery--and not even reasonable Americans offering advice from outside, are yet willing to face this awful reality.

The Nature of the Threat

The current regime in North Korea is an Orwellian nightmare--the concept of totalitarian dictatorship in its purest form. All power is in the hands of a pseudo-charismatic dictator, synthetically creating the image of mass devotion to his personal genius but in fact ruling by fear through a pervasive apparatus of secret police surveillance and bureaucratic party-state control over every aspect of daily life--including, most importantly, the supply of food and shelter. Its moral inspiration is the Soviet tyranny of Joseph Stalin, whose Red Army installed this regime in 1945. The North Korean regime is responsible for the death of millions of its own subjects--through mass executions, a gulag system equal to, if not more villainous than, the Soviet one, and central planning policies that have led to mass starvation and gruesome poverty for those who survive. The great historical achievement of Korean communism is to have caused a famine that has killed off a greater percentage of the population than has occurred anywhere else in the world (Pol Pot's Cambodia possibly excepted).

The structure of power in Pyongyang has remained unchanged since its inception--surviving, indeed, being enhanced by a dynastic transfer of power in 1994 from the father and "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung to his only begotten son and the "Dear Leader", Kim Jong-il. While the threat to the world emanates from North Korea's international behavior, not its domestic structure, the internal nature of the regime is of great relevance to understanding the dangers inherent in that behavior.

Over the course of its existence this regime has violated every norm of civilized international behavior. It has not only harbored international terrorists (the Japanese Red Army) who had hijacked aircraft and massacred civilians at airports, the regime has itself engaged in terrorism, shooting down a South Korean airliner in 1988 (killing all 115 on board) and assassinating members of the South Korean cabinet who were on a state visit to Burma. Over many years, it has kidnapped civilians from South Korea--to satisfy Kim Jong-il's personal need for a technically sophisticated film industry--and from Japan--in order to train North Korean spies in Japanese language and culture. It engages in the illicit trade of both weapons (including selling ballistic missiles to Libya, Iran and Syria) and narcotics (such as heroin, which it transports to criminals in Western countries). Most ominously, as we all know, it has secretly developed nuclear weapons, breaking a number of signed agreements.

In 1994, the United States discovered that North Korea was building a plutonium enrichment facility at Yongbyon. The Clinton Administration, which had considered bombing the facility, then decided to take what appeared to be a less politically costly course: negotiations. The "Agreed Framework", signed in Geneva on October 21, 1994, required North Korea to cease and dismantle its nuclear programs in return for the United States providing fuel and a light-water reactor that would generate electric power but not provide fuel for nuclear weapons.

Their signature turned out to be worthless. In the summer of 2002, the United States discovered evidence that North Korea was cheating the world: Pyongyang was secretly building a uranium enrichment plant that could produce nuclear weapons. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly brought this charge in October 2002, and, to everyone's surprise, the North Koreans admitted their deception. Then, on December 22--two days after a narrow majority of South Koreans elected as president the soft-line candidate Roh Moo-hyun, who had promised not to use sanctions or pressure against the North to change its nuclear policies--the North Koreans announced that they were removing United Nations monitoring equipment from the sealed plutonium nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. The next month, North Korea announced it was withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

If the North's facilities are not shut down and the spent fuel rods are not shipped out of the country, North Korea will be able to produce several nuclear weapons within months--if it has not already done so.

Many analysts assume that this series of moves is part of a game of extortion, whereby Pyongyang gets promises of Western economic assistance to prop up its shattered economy in return for agreeing not to proceed with nuclear weapons development. But if this is a shakedown, it is not indefinitely reusable; hence it will be unable to solve Pyongyang's long-term economic problem. This is not to say that extortion is not part of Pyongyang's calculus, but rather that the North is seeking the bomb for other reasons. Indeed, weapons sales have been a major source of hard currency for the bankrupt regime. More ominously, nuclear weapons capability serves Pyongyang's basic strategic objectives, which are incompatible with those of Washington and its allies.

Who does North Korea threaten most by its acquisition of nuclear weapons? The first and most obvious target is South Korea. Nuclear weapons would give the North's massive but technically inferior conventional forces a new strategic advantage vis-Ã -vis the South: Pyongyang's acquisition of nuclear weapons is probably not aimed primarily at changing the force balance between North and South Korea directly. Rather, the acquisition of nuclear weapons is a geostrategic decision meant to deter the United States and the region's other powers from intervening on the side of the South in any future conflict.

North Korean missile development has now reached the point where it has the capability to hit all major Japanese cities. Before too long it will also be able to strike America's western coast. Absent nuclear warheads, such a capability is militarily insignificant. With nuclear warheads, such missiles would be a lethal first strike force and, as such, could be considered by the North as a deterrent to hold tens of millions of Japanese civilians, the Japanese economy and millions of Americans hostage during a North Korean assault against the South.

This is not to suggest that Pyongyang, upon acquiring nuclear weapons, plans to invade the South shortly thereafter. The North is well aware that the United States has plans to retaliate massively in a manner that will topple the regime should it invade the South. More likely, Pyongyang wants this deterrent as a shield behind which it will be able to conduct its "rogue nation" activities--such as missile, chemical weapons and narcotics sales abroad--with impunity. Furthermore, it will have the deterrent available for some future occasion when the United States is tied down, say, halfway across the globe and hence unable to bring to bear its full military capacity in defense of South Korea.

But the most chilling threat posed by a North Korea gone nuclear is its ability to provide nuclear weapons material to terrorists, in particular Al-Qaeda. There is no reason to believe that Pyongyang would have a moral qualm about doing this. Moreover, North Korea has a track record of being one of the world's great proliferators of weapons technology.

It is also known from documents acquired in Afghanistan that Al-Qaeda wants to acquire a nuclear capability. So a weapons transfer from Pyongyang to Al-Qaeda is not a nightmare scenario from a science fiction novel but a real possibility. The notion that any transfer of nuclear weapons-grade material to Al-Qaeda would be detected easily by the outside world is false. Weapons-grade nuclear bomb material is tiny in size. It could be transported out of North Korea in at least two ways: first, by land through the porous border with China; or second, by mini-submarine (the North has several) to a small boat that could then transport it by ship to Pakistan or some other poorly-governed nation, where a friendly, well-paid, Al-Qaeda-sympathizing scientist could transform the material into one or more bombs. Those bombs could then be placed in separate containers and shipped to, say, New York, Boston, Montréal, San Francisco, London, Marseilles, Tokyo and Sydney, and detonated. A successful nuclear attack on America and its allies would not only kill hundreds of thousands of people instantly, it would poison tens of millions more with radiation and render major Western shipping centers uninhabitable for years, devastating the economies of the West. This would be Al-Qaeda's ultimate doomsday scenario.

Essay Types: Essay