America’s Failing War Effort (Part 5 of 12): North Korea

by | Nov 23, 2003 | POLITICS

Even though the current war has been deemed a “war on terrorism,” this is a misnomer. One does not go to war with a method of fighting, one goes to war with an enemy. And for this reason the current war is far wider than even a war against militant Islam. It is against every […]

Even though the current war has been deemed a “war on terrorism,” this is a misnomer. One does not go to war with a method of fighting, one goes to war with an enemy. And for this reason the current war is far wider than even a war against militant Islam. It is against every nation espousing an anti-American ideology and working to devise means of threatening our security, whether through terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.

From this perspective the current war is also against North Korea, which President Bush chose to include as a member of the axis of evil for a reason. Any brutal communist dictatorship pursuing nuclear weapons, and threatening to use them as cavalierly as North Korea does, poses an independent threat to any free nation and in particular to the United States. And although North Korea’s direct support for terrorist acts is minimal, its potential for proliferating nuclear arms to terrorist groups is even more distressing. The discovery in December of a North Korean ship loaded with Scud missiles, allegedly bound for Yemen, raised the specter of a nuclear-armed North Korea secretly selling its weaponry to rogue bidders around the globe. And some of North Korea’s clients are not so reclusive: its cooperation with Iran[32] and Pakistan over the development of ballistic missiles (in return for nuclear assistance) demonstrates that the “axis of evil” is more than an empty metaphor, but a factual description of an active cooperative alliance.

But even though the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program far exceeds any threat ever associated with Iraq’s WMDs, and even though it was Iraq’s WMD program that was touted as the main justification for war, the Bush administration has so far insisted that North Korea be handled differently. Because North Korea is believed already to have nuclear weapons, it is thought that a preemptive strike would involve undue risk of retaliation. Even if this were true (and we will argue later in this section that it is not), it would at best warrant non-interference with North Korea. It would certainly not warrant the fawning concessions, including offers of economic aid and non-aggression pacts, so far proposed (officially or otherwise) by the Bush administration.

By making these offers of aid, the Bush administration threatens to repeat the mistake made by the Clinton administration in October of 1994, a mistake the Bush administration has itself criticized. In the 1994 “Agreed Framework,” the North Koreans agreed to scrap their nuclear weapons program in return for energy assistance (including the development of light-water nuclear reactors) from the United States. But in October of 2002, the North Koreans abandoned the Agreed Framework by admitting to a secret nuclear weapons program. Just as North Korea could not have been expected to live up to its agreement in 1994, so it cannot be expected to do the same now. This is because nothing has changed about North Korea: it is still an oppressive, aggressive and deceptive regime. Offering it concessions only teaches it to expect and demand further concessions.

The North Koreans have learned what it takes to scare the Bush administration into diplomatic capitulation. They have abandoned every conceivable treaty (the 1994 Agreed Framework with the Clinton Administration, the 1992 Nuclear-free Zone Agreement with South Korea, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the UN-administered armistice with the United States), announced every possible stage in the development of their weapons program (the reactivation of nuclear plants, the reprocessing of uranium, the regaining of access to plutonium, the promise to test a bomb and develop tactical nukes), and made every possible inflammatory threat to the United States and its allies.

When the North Koreans have exhausted every remaining permutation of threat, the State Department then announces a dramatic concession, such as a major aid package or a security guarantee, and multilateral talks are begun. This pattern played itself out in March-April of 2003, and then again between June and August. In each case the United States drew back from the brink and failed to offer the North Koreans the most dramatic of concessions, whereupon the North Koreans pulled out of the talks, announcing in the first case their possession of nuclear weapons, and in the second, their intention to test them.

At the same time, there is a schizophrenia in the Bush North Korea policy, such that diplomatic offerings to North Korea have been counterbalanced by vague threats of war or sanctions by advocates of regime change within the administration. At times these threats actually seemed to prevent the Americans from capitulating completely to the North Koreans. War plans leaked from the Pentagon in April of 2003, for example, might have played a role in prompting the North Koreans to withdraw from the first round of multilateral talks. But aside from the fact that this schizophrenia has made Bush policy more unpredictable, the threats of the hawks have also been unsupported by the administration. This has made it easier for the North Koreans to issue more bellicose threats in response. Idle threats, after all, are more dangerous than none at all: they incense one’s enemy, but give him no reason to fear retribution.

If the United States is to end this absurd cycle of diplomacy with North Korea–and more importantly, to end the actual North Korean threat–it will need to stop making concessions, stop making idle threats, and begin to formulate plans for actual military action to disarm the Pyongyang regime, and perhaps even to remove it.

Conventional wisdom holds that military action against Pyongyang and/or its reactors would carry an unacceptable risk: at minimum, a massive North Korean artillery assault against Seoul; at most, North Korea’s delivery of an actual nuclear device against friendly soil. It is impossible to say for sure whether the North actually has an operable device, but its use of artillery against the South is a very real possibility. This outcome has dissuaded most in the administration from contemplating even limited strikes against North Korean nuclear facilities, to say nothing of an attack aimed at the regime itself.

But even though the North’s retaliatory capability is near certain, its will to respond is not. American policymakers have failed to consider a bold but simple solution to the problem of North Korean retaliation: the preemptive destruction, using tactical nuclear weapons, if necessary, of North Korea’s artillery apparatus, and more importantly, the message that any such retaliation would guarantee complete and overwhelming annihilation of the North Korean capital and infrastructure.[33] A measure like this may seem drastic, but as columnist Robert Tracinski has pointed out, “North Korea is a hold-over from the Cold War, and what is required to deal with them is old-fashioned Cold War brinksmanship.”[34]

The Bush administration is unwilling to risk brinkmanship. But this risk aversion seems to stem less from the belief that a military strike might not be successful, than from the unwillingness to assert the priority of American security and interests. Nervous South Korea will hear nothing of a military strike, and the U.S. so far seems unwilling to gainsay their wishes.

The Bush administration must assert this priority of American interests, and act to implement that priority. Its moral obligation is primarily to protect the lives of American citizens against an unpredictable, nuclearized North Korea, not primarily to protect the lives of the South Koreans–and certainly not those in the North. With any luck, the United States should be able to prevent any attack on Seoul through a policy of nuclear deterrence, but only if it makes crystal clear to the North that it means business. Unfortunately, the history of American appeasement of the North Koreans over the past year does not bode well for the American ability to deliver this message.

Cartoon by Cox and Forkum.


[32] See fn. 11 on Iran. “In North Korea and Pakistan, deep roots of a nuclear barter.” New York Times. November 24, 2002 ; “The cold test.” The New Yorker. January 27, 2003 .

[33] See Stanley Kurtz, “The Other Imminent Danger,” The National Review Online. March 3, 2003.

[34] Robert Tracinski, “Defending America’s Second FrontCapitalism Magazine.

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