Living with the Unthinkable

Living with the Unthinkable

Mini Teaser: A nuclear North Korea is inevitable. Coexist and contain.

by Author(s): Ted Galen Carpenter

There is a pervasive desire in the United States and throughout East
Asia to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear-armed power, for
the prospect of Kim Jong-il's bizarre and unpredictable regime having
such a capability is profoundly disturbing. Two factions have emerged
in the United States about how to deal with the crisis, and they
embrace sharply different strategies. Yet they share an important
underlying assumption: that North Korea is using its nuclear program
merely as a negotiating ploy, and that Pyongyang can eventually be
induced to give up that program.

One group thinks that Washington's top policy objective should be to
entice Pyongyang to return to the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which
the North Koreans agreed to freeze their nuclear program in exchange
for fuel oil shipments and Western assistance in constructing
proliferation resistant light-water reactors for power generation.
These advocates of dialogue think the United States should meet North
Korea's demand for a non-aggression pact and provide other
concessions to resolve the nuclear crisis. Individuals as politically
diverse as former President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Joseph Lieberman
(D-CT), former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft and Rep.
Curt Weldon (R-PA) have issued impassioned calls for a strategy of
dialogue and concessions. Those who advocate that strategy ignore an
important point, however: The United States has negotiated with North
Korea before, but each understanding or formal agreement seems merely
to pave the way for a new round of cheating and a new crisis.

The Bush Administration and most conservatives form the competing
faction, which is decidedly more skeptical about the efficacy of
offering concessions to Pyongyang. Moreover, it is apparent that the
administration has no interest in merely restoring the Agreed
Framework. Washington's goal is an agreement that would include
comprehensive "on demand" inspections of all possible nuclear weapons
sites. Indeed, it was that demand that contributed to an impasse in
the six-party talks (involving Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, the
United States and North Korea) in August.

The administration's approach combines a willingness to engage in
multilateral talks with a determination to tighten the screws
economically. One manifestation of the latter component is the
Proliferation Security Initiative, which enlists the support of
allies to interdict North Korea's trade in ballistic missiles,
nuclear technology, illegal drugs and other contraband. The core of
Washington's strategy is to forge a united diplomatic and economic
front with the nations of East Asia to pressure North Korea to give
up its nuclear weapons program.

But if the advocates of negotiations and concessions are naive,
proponents of diplomatic pressure and economic coercion may not be
much more realistic. It is not at all clear that even comprehensive
economic sanctions would produce the desired policy changes. UNICEF
has concluded that, because North Korea is already so desperately
poor, economic sanctions would have a slight impact. Trying to
further isolate one of the world's most economically isolated
countries is a little like threatening to deprive a monk of worldly
pleasures. Tightening economic sanctions may cause additional
suffering among North Korea's destitute masses, but such an approach
is unlikely to alter the regime's behavior on the nuclear issue.

Ultimately, the competing strategies of dialogue and
economic/diplomatic pressure are based on the same assumption: that
the right policy mix will cause the North to give up its nuclear
ambitions. But what if that assumption is wrong? CIA director George
Tenet concedes that North Korea may believe there is no contradiction
between continuing to pursue a nuclear weapons program and seeking a
"normal relationship" with the United States--a relationship that
would entail substantial concessions from Washington. "Kim Jong-il's
attempts to parlay the North's nuclear program into political
leverage suggest he is trying to negotiate a fundamentally different
relationship with Washington, one that implicitly tolerates the
North's nuclear weapons program", Tenet concludes. Robert Madsen, a
fellow at Stanford University's Asia/Pacific Research Center is even
more skeptical of the conventional wisdom that North Korea is using
the nuclear program solely as a bargaining chip. As he argued in the
Financial Times,

The problem with this analysis is that Pyongyang probably does not
intend to trade its nuclear weapons for foreign concessions. To the
contrary, an examination of North Korea's national interests suggests
the acquisition of a sizeable nuclear arsenal is a perfectly rational

Given the way the United States has treated non-nuclear adversaries
such as Serbia and Iraq, such a conclusion by North Korean leaders
would not be all that surprising.

Pyongyang's long-standing pattern of making agreements to remain
non-nuclear and then systematically violating those agreements also
casts doubt on the bargaining chip thesis. In addition to violating
the 1994 Agreed Framework, the North violated its obligations under
the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which Pyongyang joined in 1985)
and the 1991 joint declaration with South Korea to keep the peninsula
non-nuclear. Such repeated cheating raises a very disturbing
possibility: Perhaps North Korea is determined to become a nuclear
power and has engaged in diplomatic obfuscation to confuse or lull
its adversaries. If that is the case, the United States and the
countries of East Asia may have to deal with the reality of a
nuclear-armed North Korea.

Pre-emption vs. Containment

The policy options available to forestall this dangerous development
are all rather unpleasant, but one is decidedly worse and
significantly more frightening than the others: the possibility that
the United States might use military force to prevent North Korea
from building its nuclear arsenal. Hawks in the American foreign
policy community are already broaching that possibility. Citing
Israel's raid on Iraq's Osirak reactor, Richard Perle, the
influential former chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board,
warns that no one can "exclude the kind of surgical strike we saw in
1981." Moreover, in what should sound alarm bells in Tokyo and Seoul,
he makes it clear that America's allies should not expect to exercise
a veto over that decision.

Many advocates of pre-emptive military action are confident that such
a course would not trigger a major war in East Asia. Those who
embrace that optimistic scenario fail to explain why the North Korean
elite would assume that a passive response to an American pre-emptive
strike would enhance the prospects for regime survival. Given the way
the United States treated Iraq, the North Koreans would more likely
conclude that an attack on the country's nuclear installations would
be merely a prelude to a larger military offensive to achieve regime
change. The fact that some political allies of the Bush
Administration openly talk about pushing regime change certainly does
not reassure Pyongyang on that score.

Using military force to eradicate North Korea's nuclear program would
be a high-risk venture that could easily engulf the Korean Peninsula
in a major war. Indeed, it could be a war with nuclear implications.
North Korea boasts that it already possesses some nuclear weapons,
and U.S. intelligence sources have long believed that Pyongyang
already may have built one or two weapons by the time it agreed to
freeze its program in 1994. An assessment by China's intelligence
agency is even more alarming. Beijing reportedly believes the North
may have four or five such weapons. Worse still, press reports
contend that U.S. officials have told their Japanese counterparts
that North Korea is working to develop "several" nuclear warheads
that can be loaded onto ballistic missiles. North Korea itself has
announced that it has completed reprocessing the spent fuel rods in
the Yongbyon reactor and is now building more nuclear weapons. If
true, Pyongyang will soon have a deployable arsenal, not merely one
or two crude nuclear devices.

A pre-emptive strike is not the answer. The nuclear variable in the
pre-emption equation is too uncertain to warrant the risk for at
least this simple reason: It is not at all certain that the United
States has identified all of the installations, much less that it
could successfully eradicate them. North Korea has had years to build
installations deep underground and to disperse any weapons it has

It is unlikely that North Korea would passively accept the blow
against its sovereignty that even a surgical strike against the
Yongbyon reactor complex or other targets would entail. At the very
least, Washington would have to expect terrorist retaliation by North
Korean operatives against U.S. targets overseas and, possibly, in the
homeland itself. North Korea might even retaliate by launching
full-scale military operations against South Korea--a development
that would put U.S. forces stationed in that country in immediate
danger. Indeed, in a worst-case scenario, mushroom clouds could
blossom above Seoul and Tokyo--or above U.S. bases in South Korea or

It is conceivable, of course, that Kim Jong-il's regime would
fulminate about an Osirak-like strike but not escalate the crisis to
full-scale war. Or perhaps North Korea's military would unravel under
stress and not be able to mount a coherent offensive. But that is not
the way to bet. Even a U.S. military buildup in the region designed
to intimidate Pyongyang could trigger a catastrophe. "Bold
Sentinel"--a war game organized by the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in May 2003, featuring a mock National Security
Council comprised of individuals who held senior policy positions in
previous administrations--reached the conclusion that North Korea
would likely launch a pre-emptive strike in response to such a
buildup. This assessment is shared by a senior North Korean defector,
Cho Myung-chul, who estimates the chances of general war to be 80
percent in response to even a limited strike on Yongbyon.

Essay Types: Essay