Ten years ago this week, North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test. Since then, the North has doubled down against the West – its fourth and fifth tests took place this year alone – steadily expanding its nuclear arsenal and advancing its ballistic missile program.
In response, a confounded international community stands ready to intensify pressure on the regime – a familiar formula of condemnations, military shows of force, and even tighter sanctions. China has been reluctant to increase economic pressure on North Korea, but U.S. officials are confident that the UN will soon agree to a resolution imposing new sanctions and tightening existing ones. And if China ever cooperates in earnest, we may yet succeed in squeezing Kim Jong-un and his acolytes as never before.
But we must tread carefully. The North and its young leader rarely act as expected. Pressing too hard – and in the wrong way – could in fact backfire, resulting in the very things that we have been trying so long to avoid: another war on the Korean Peninsula and a terrorist attack using “loose” nuclear material secreted out of North Korea.
On the first, the desire to show military strength in the face of North Korean threats is understandable and indeed necessary – up to a point. But, going too far on a heavily armed Korean Peninsula could inadvertently escalate military tensions, spiraling into an all-out firefight resulting in unimaginable casualties.
In what has become a dangerous game of one-upmanship on the Peninsula, we can’t forget that the North Korean regime, despite its idiosyncratic behavior, is not suicidal. Pyongyang knows that the U.S. and South Korea could and would easily destroy North Korea if it fulfills its claims that it is preparing to make a ‘pre-emptive’ nuclear strike against the U.S., and so, will not do so unless pushed into a corner that it perceives as having no way out.
And here’s where perception is key: we don’t know how much pressure North Korea’s untested leader can take in an intensely provocative environment. For example, more South Korean-U.S. military exercises designed to warn the North – which include rehearsals for surgical strikes on North Korean leaders and its nuclear facilities – could move Kim closer to the edge.
So what are we left with? A regional tinderbox ready to be lit by the smallest spark – a North Korean test missile that goes badly off course, an exchange of fire along the DMZ that kills a soldier, or a collision of naval vessels in contested fishing grounds – all of which have happened in the recent past.
We must also understand that there is a significant downside if international sanctions and other forms of pressure work too well. However satisfying to us, truly crushing and prolonged sanctions increase the chances that someone in North Korea may be willing to sell nuclear material or nuclear know-how to the highest bidder.
As we learned from the tragic suicide bombing in Belgium last spring, there are terrorists groups that would go to great lengths and spend a lot of money to acquire weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium that the North is slowly but steadily producing. All it would take to level a small city is fissile material the size of a grapefruit that could be easily smuggled across borders.
So, despite official North Korean assurances that its nuclear material is secure and would never be moved out of the country, the germane question is: “secure from what?”
If the North is pressed too hard by sanctions, or in the face of military escalation from its enemies, there could be plenty of incentive for stressed elites or rogue elements – a high-ranking official, or a company of soldiers guarding key nuclear facilities, whose families are starving or in desperate need of cash – to sell a highly valued commodity as fissile material. And if that material were to find its way out of the North, one can bet that a nuclear explosion somewhere else in the world would not be far off.
Starting with the premise that man is fallible and therefore so are his complex machines and systems, noted author Eric Schlosser in his book Command and Control cites several instances when the U.S. almost nuked itself. Schlosser’s point – the inevitability of human error – aptly applies to the Korean Peninsula. Luckily nothing catastrophic has happened in 50 years, but this should not give us comfort; even a turkey thinks that life is great until Thanksgiving Day.
Make no mistake: North Korea will have a small, but sophisticated arsenal if we don’t find a way to soon freeze the North’s nuclear weapons activity. However, we also need to avoid the siren call of a policy sledgehammer, when nuance is needed -- robust enough to make North Korea feel the heat, but is sufficiently subtle so neither we nor our allies end up getting badly burned. Otherwise, our failure to strike this balance will result in what is sure to become an even bigger problem for a new Administration to deal with.
Philip Yun is Executive Director of Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based peace and security foundation. He previously served as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and as a senior advisor to two U.S. Coordinators for North Korea Policy - former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and former Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Mr. Yun was a member of a government working group that managed U.S. policy and negotiations with North Korea under President Clinton and was part of the U.S. delegation that traveled to North Korea with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.