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

Aside from its possible nuclear (and chemical and biological)
weapons, Pyongyang possesses other impressive capabilities. In
addition to its army of more than a million soldiers, North Korea
deploys up to 600 Scud missiles and additional longer-range Nodong
missiles. The Seoul-Inchon metropolitan area (which hosts roughly
half of South Korea's population) is less than forty miles from the
DMZ. Pyongyang is thought to be capable of firing between 300,000 and
500,000 artillery shells an hour into Seoul in the event of war. Even
if the North were ultimately defeated, which would be almost
inevitable, the destruction to South Korea would be horrific.
Estimates of the number of likely casualties from a full-scale North
Korean attack range from 100,000 to more than one million. That fact
alone should take the military option off the table, yet the Bush
Administration has publicly--and, what is worse, privately--declined
to do so.

Instead of placing faith in the efficacy of negotiations with a
country that has violated every agreement it has ever signed on the
nuclear issue or considering the dangerous option of pre-emptive war,
the United States needs a strategy to deal with the prospect of North
Korea's emergence as a nuclear power. Washington should pursue a
two-pronged strategy, since there are two serious problems that must
be addressed. One problem is the possibility that Pyongyang might be
aiming to become a regional nuclear power with a significant arsenal
that could pose a threat to its neighbors and, ultimately, to the
American homeland. The latter is not an immediate danger, but a North
Korean capability to do so over the longer-term is a problem
Washington must anticipate.

Countering the threat of a "bolt out of the blue" attack on the
United States is relatively straightforward. America retains the
largest and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal in the world, as well
as a decisive edge in all conventional military capabilities. The
North Korean regime surely knows (although it might behoove the
administration to make the point explicitly) that any attack on
American soil would mean the obliteration of the regime. The United
States successfully deterred a succession of aggressive and odious
Soviet leaders from using nuclear weapons, and it did the same thing
with a nuclear-armed China under Mao Zedong. It is therefore highly
probable that Kim Jong-il's North Korea, which would possess a much
smaller nuclear arsenal than either the Soviet Union and China, can
be deterred as well. As an insurance policy to protect the American
population in the highly unlikely event that deterrence fails, and
for other reasons besides, Washington should continue developing a
shield against ballistic missiles.

To counter North Korea's possible threat to East Asia, Washington
should convey the message that Pyongyang would be making a serious
miscalculation by assuming it will possess a nuclear monopoly in
northeast Asia. North Korea's rulers are counting on the United
States to prevent Japan and South Korea from even considering the
option of going nuclear. American officials should inform Pyongyang
that, if the North insists on joining the global nuclear weapons
club, Washington will urge Tokyo and Seoul to re-evaluate their
earlier decisions to decline to acquire strategic nuclear deterrents.
Even the possibility that South Korea and Japan might do so would
come as an extremely unpleasant wakeup call to North Korea.

The United States does not need to press Tokyo and Seoul to go
nuclear. It is sufficient if Washington informs those governments
that the United States would not object to them developing nuclear
weapons. That by itself would be a major change in U.S. policy. In
addition, Washington needs to let Seoul and Tokyo know that the
United States intends to withdraw its forces from South Korea and
Japan. In an environment with a nuclear-armed North Korea, those
forward-deployed forces are not military assets; they are nuclear

Faced with a dangerous neighbor possessing nuclear capabilities and a
more limited U.S. military commitment to the region, Japan or South
Korea (or perhaps both countries) might well decide to build a
nuclear deterrent. The prospect of additional nuclear proliferation
in northeast Asia is obviously not an ideal outcome. But offsetting
the North's illicit advantage may be the best of a set of bad
options. Simply trying to renegotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework is
unlikely to induce North Korea to return to non-nuclear status.
Diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions are not likely to achieve
that goal either. And pre-emptive military strikes are too dangerous.

The one chance to get the North to abandon its current course is for
Washington and its allies to make clear to Pyongyang that it may have
to deal with nuclear neighbors (translation: the North would no
longer be able to intimidate them in the same strategically
advantageous way). Indeed, Pyongyang could face the prospect of
confronting more prosperous adversaries possessing a greater capacity
to build larger and more sophisticated nuclear arsenals than North
Korea could hope to do. The North may conclude that ending its
cheating strategy and keeping the region non-nuclear would be a more
productive approach. Even if Pyongyang does not do so, a nuclear
balance of power--a mad for northeast Asia--would likely emerge
instead of a North Korean nuclear monopoly.

Additionally, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan is the one factor
that could galvanize Beijing to put serious diplomatic and economic
pressure on Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear ambitions. Charles
Krauthammer has expressed this thesis starkly in the Washington Post:

We should go to the Chinese and tell them plainly that if they do not
join us in squeezing North Korea and thus stopping its march to go
nuclear, we will endorse any Japanese attempt to create a nuclear
deterrent of its own. Even better, we would sympathetically regard
any request by Japan to acquire American nuclear missiles as an
immediate and interim deterrent. If our nightmare is a nuclear North
Korea, China's is a nuclear Japan. It's time to share the nightmares.

Even if one does not embrace Krauthammer's approach, the reality is
that, if the United States blocks the emergence of a northeast Asian
nuclear balance, it may well be stuck with the responsibility of
shielding non-nuclear allies from a volatile, nuclear-armed North
Korea. More proliferation may be a troubling outcome, but it beats
that nightmare scenario.

But some of the most hawkish members of the U.S. foreign policy
community are terrified at the prospect of America's democratic
allies in East Asia building nuclear deterrents. Neoconservative
activists Robert Kagan and William Kristol, writing in the Weekly
Standard, expressed horror about the possibility of such
proliferation: "The possibility that Japan, and perhaps even Taiwan,
might respond to North Korea's actions by producing their own nuclear
weapons, thus spurring an East Asian nuclear arms race . . . is
something that should send chills up the spine of any sensible
American strategist." This attitude misconstrues the problem. The
real threat to East Asia is if an aggressive and erratic North Korean
regime gets nukes. Nuclear arsenals in the hands of stable,
democratic, status quo powers such as Japan and South Korea do not
threaten the peace of the region. Kagan and Kristol, and other
likeminded Americans, embrace a moral equivalency between a potential
aggressor and its potential victims.

The other component of the North Korean nuclear problem is even more
troubling. The United States and North Korea's neighbors can probably
learn to live with Pyongyang's possession of a small nuclear arsenal.
What the United States cannot tolerate is North Korea's becoming the
global distributor of nuclear technology, potentially selling a
nuclear weapon or fissile material to Al-Qaeda or other anti-American
terrorist organizations. Pyongyang has shown a willingness to sell
anything that will raise revenue for the financially hard-pressed
regime. North Korea earned $560 million in 2001 alone in missile
sales--including sales to some of the most virulently anti-American
regimes3--while, in the spring of 2003, evidence emerged of extensive
North Korean involvement in the heroin trade. As Deputy Secretary of
State Richard Armitage remarked before the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee in early-February 2003, "the arms race in North Korea pales
next to the possibility . . . that she would pass on fissile material
and other nuclear technology to either transnational actors or to
rogue states."

Preventing that development, which is clearly the goal of the
Proliferation Security Initiative, will certainly not be easy.
Successful interdiction as a general policy is a long shot at best.
The utter failure to halt the trafficking in illegal drugs using that
method does not bode well for intercepting nuclear contraband. It
would be difficult to seal off North Korea in the face of a concerted
smuggling campaign. Indeed, it is especially daunting when one
realizes that the amount of plutonium needed to build a nuclear
weapon could be smuggled in a container the size of a bread box.

Since interdiction is unlikely to prove successful except on
fortuitous occasions, the United States needs to adopt another
approach. First, Washington should communicate to North Korea, both
in private and publicly, that selling nuclear material--much less an
assembled nuclear weapon--to terrorist organizations or hostile
governments will be regarded as a threat to America's vital security
interests. Indeed, the United States should treat such a transaction
as the equivalent of a threatened attack on America by North Korea.
Such a threat would warrant military action to remove the North
Korean regime. Pyongyang must be told in no uncertain terms that
trafficking in nuclear materials is a bright red line that it dare
not cross if the regime wishes to survive.

Essay Types: Essay