All Writings
May 4, 2003

Providing Extended Nuclear Deterrence

Now that the war in Iraq is over, the administration must refocus its attention on the next crisis spot, North Korea. Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains center stage, North Korea requires urgent attention. The dynamics are different, especially the nuclear threat must be dealt with before the situation gets out of control.

It is now close to 2 ½ years since President Bush took office, and we still do not have a coherent North Korean policy in place. After provoking North Korea by including it in the infamous "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq, the relations between the two countries have further deteriorated, with no specific strategy emerging to bring the crisis to a peaceful conclusion. Watching with awe and trepidation the unfolding events in Iraq, North Korea fears it may be next, especially since the United States has refused to enter into a bilateral agreement to allay its alarms. What is needed is a policy that achieves our ultimate objective of ending North Korea's nuclear program, while ensuring that any new agreement be permanent. Pyongyang must conclude that possessing nuclear weapons now or in the future is a serious liability, not an asset.

The tension between the departments of state and defense is a main reason behind the administration's failure to develop a coherent North Korean policy. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and other hawks in his department favor a regime change in North Korea, but Secretary of State Powell counsels patience and a diplomatic solution. The difficulty the administration faces is how to achieve a regime change, the preferred outcome, without resorting to force. Our problem is compounded because the Iraqi war is still fresh in the minds of the leaders of the other player-nations–South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia– who because of it even more vehemently oppose a regime change by any means, especially force. In addition, a war with North Korea could easily spill over to South Korea or Japan. The reclusive North Korean leader will probably not stop short of attempting to draw his neighbors into the conflict, with unpredictable consequences.

Despite these obstacles, a change in regime remains the most desirable outcome. This may explain why the Bush administration is objecting to North Korea's offer to abandon its nuclear program in favor of a non-aggression treaty with the United States if we provide a long-term economic aid. From the administration's perspective, a bilateral agreement would maintain the regime's survival. This view also explains why the administration favors economic sanctions to exert additional pressure on North Korea's government. By including Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea in any future agreement with North Korea, Mr. Bush hopes to reduce our direct commitment, which will also free the administration to continue to pursue its objective of regime change. This is precisely what the North Koreans are afraid of, and why they continue to insist on some form of bilateral non-aggression pact.

Meanwhile, we have exaggerated the threat posed by North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons. This has played into the hands of its schizophrenic leader who has responded by increasingly raising the ante in order to force the administration to concede to his demands. First, Pyongyang expelled the international inspectors, then restarted its nuclear reactor to produce more plutonium, and followed these by withdrawing from the non-proliferation agreement. These actions brought it closer to becoming a nuclear power. Although the administration held firm against such provocations, it has been unable to find a way to counterbalance North Korea's brinkmanship.

The talks in Beijing toward the end of April between the United States, China, and North Korea offered a face-saving way out for the Bush administration and Pyongyang (in lieu of bilateral negotiation) to begin a dialogue. Although no substantial progress resulted from the meeting, China's active role may work to our advantage, although this occurred in response to Pyongyang's absurd and non-committal behavior at the talks rather than to any deliberate American strategy. We should continue to lean on China to pressure Pyongyang to come to grips with its unacceptable violations. We can also take steps to neutralize Pyongyang's nuclear threat by providing extended nuclear deterrence to our friends and allies in Asia.

The power of possessing nuclear weapons lies not so much in their actual use as in their employment as a tool to intimidate and blackmail. But their primary use is to deter a nuclear attack or to retaliate if that fails. In the case of North Korea, there is also the possibility that its government may offer nuclear materials to terrorist groups, a matter of great concern to the administration. But why aren't we able to frighten North Korea into backing down when we deterred the former Soviet Union, with a far greater arsenal estimated to be more than 50 thousand nuclear weapons–from attacking us or any of our allies throughout the Cold War? The answer is that the former Soviet Union knew perfectly well that we possessed a second strike capability to inflict unacceptable damage even after a first nuclear strike against us. During the Cold War, the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction created a balance of terror that prevented both sides from contemplating a first strike.

The North Korean leadership, in contrast, is uncertain whether we are willing to engage in a nuclear confrontation, and therefore is not deterred by our nuclear superiority. This uncertainty is why they constantly try to test our position, intentions, and fortitude. And it similarly explains the loose talk, which infuriated and embarrassed the Chinese, about their willingness to use nuclear weapons or sell nuclear materials should the United States fail to meet their demands through a negotiated agreement.

A way to neutralize Pyongyang's nuclear weapons is through extended nuclear deterrence, which provides a nuclear umbrella of protection for our friends and allies in Asia, especially South Korea. Under such a doctrine, a nuclear attack by North Korea against any American ally would immediately trigger nuclear retaliation. Although North Korea might possess one or two nuclear weapons with a capacity to produce four to six more in the next 12 months, it has no second strike capability. This option would certainly raise the temperature throughout Asia. It will particularly alarm the South Koreans, who have no appetite for any extended deterrence that places them in the theater of conflict. Even so, we should not readily dismiss pursuing this strategy. It worked throughout the Cold War, and more recently during the confrontation between India and Pakistan. There, India's development of nuclear weapons was quickly neutralized by Pakistan's own. Past experience has thus shown that mutual possession of nuclear arsenals has had a restraining effect. In the case of India and Pakistan, it may very well have been the factor that prevented a third conventional war from breaking out between them. And it may be the catalyst for their present renewed direct contact to try to settle the dispute over Kashmir. The drawback of this option is that it would not lead to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, a preferred outcome for all the nations involved. But it would neutralize Pyongyang's nuclear weapons, rendering them useless in the face of America's overwhelming nuclear power.

Concerned about nuclear proliferation, the Bush administration is leaning toward imposing severe economic sanctions on North Korea to force its compliance with non-proliferation. Historically, economic sanctions have proved ineffective. They did not work against Iran; they achieved mixed results against Iraq; and in the over 30 nations that are the target of some form of US economic sanctions, including Cuba, they have not caused a change of either policy or regime. In addition, it has been extremely difficult to persuade other nations to support tough sanctions against a regime and even more difficult to impose adherence after they have been agreed upon. The political atmosphere in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion makes it extremely difficult for the administration to convince other members of the Security Council, especially the three veto-bearing powers–Russia, France, and China–to impose severe sanctions on North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea also object to sanctions, fearing an escalation of the conflict, and prefer a non-coercive diplomatic solution. Sanctions would also prolong the conflict with North Korea, which has very little to lose and considers them a declaration of war. Imposing sanctions may goad it to act recklessly, precipitating a terrible international disaster.

With extended deterrence and a simultaneous search for a diplomatic solution, the United States will leave Pyongyang with only one choice: to negotiate on our terms. North Korea must come to the negotiating table with the knowledge that it cannot have things both ways. Abandoning its nuclear weapons and their delivery system permanently in exchange for economic aid and earnestly engaging South Korea in unification talks would then be seen as the only viable option. Because North Korea has violated its 1994 agreement, and we cannot trust Pyongyang to live up to future agreements, any new pact must be internationally binding and include other interested parties especially Russia, Japan, China, and of course South Korea. The United States should continue contact with North Korea in whatever form, including bilateral negotiations, to achieve this desired goal.