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Why is North Korea a threat?

North Korea sells narcotics and amphetamines through its embassies, counterfeits consumer products and American currency, peddles missiles, and starves its people.  Kim Jong Il’s regime claims to be the only legitimate government on the Korean peninsula, so it implicitly challenges the existence of South Korea’s democratic institutions.  Pyongyang calls Japan “the sworn enemy of the Korean nation,” so the Japanese are at risk as well.  Moreover, a North Korean diplomat hinted that his country might sell nuclear weapons.


Most important, North Korea poses an unmistakable challenge to the world’s arms control rules, especially the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.  North Korea is the only nation to withdraw from the NPT, as the global pact is known.  Among today’s nuclear powers, it is the only country to secretly develop its arsenal of nukes while it was a NPT signatory, thereby violating its international obligations.  The precedent could not be worse.  North Korea’s defiance of arms-control norms could move the international community to the crisis point of rapid proliferation. 



What’s at stake in the nuclear crisis?

North Korea is not just about North Korea.  North Korea is about Iran, Syria, Algeria, and every other country that wants the most destructive weapon in history.  In short, North Korea is about the future of the world.


If North Korea gets away with going nuclear, other troublesome states will see that they can do so as well.  Pyongyang’s defiance of arms control rules can result in dozens of new nuclear powers.  Undoubtedly, some of them will be hostile to the West and a few may be unstable.


So what’s at stake?  Perhaps more than we think.  An international order that cannot defend its most fundamental interest against one of its weakest members cannot last.



Are we making progress in denuclearizing North Korea?

We are participating in six-party talks in Beijing, but that’s not necessarily an indication of progress.  The six parties (the United States, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea) agreed to a joint statement of principles in September 2005.  In that statement North Korea pledged to give up its nuclear weapons.


Many commentators hailed the statement as a “breakthrough.”  That assessment appears premature, however.  The best we can say at this time is that the joint statement merely postponed the breakdown of talks. 


The joint statement is imprecise, even for a roadmap for future negotiations.  There is no mention in the statement of the existence of North Korea’s uranium weapons program—the reason for the talks in the first place—and only a passing reference to the verification of Pyongyang’s disarmament pledge.  There are no details explaining the nature or extent of the various promises of the parties and only the vaguest references to when they must perform their obligations. 


Within a few days of the announcement of the statement, each of the six parties to the talks issued its own interpretation of the document.  The differences in these interpretations make it clear that there was little agreement among the participants.  The world needed a definite roadmap to a solution, but the parties accepted an arrangement that permitted even more North Korean delaying tactics.  


And while North Korea delays, it is building up its arsenal.  Many observers believe that negotiations are a “no cost” option when it comes to solving the crisis.  Yet that is not exactly true.  This decade’s installment of the confrontation with Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons program has now lasted more than three years.  As time passes, Kim Jong Il increases the range of his ballistic missiles and augments his arsenal of atomic arms. 



Is China helping to solve the crisis?

China says it wants to denuclearize North Korea, and it is sponsoring the six-party discussions for this purpose.  Nonetheless, disarming Pyongyang is a relatively low priority for Beijing at this time.  China has continued to support Kim Jong Il’s regime with material aid—food, energy, and trade credits—and diplomatic support.  Such assistance has stabilized Kim’s government and thereby lessened its incentive to negotiate in good faith at the six-party talks.


It is true that Chinese attitudes toward North Korea are changing, and support for Kim Jong Il is slipping in Beijing.  Nonetheless, this change is not occurring fast enough.  The world needs a solution now.  Unfortunately, China is not playing a constructive role at this time, at least on balance.  In short, China is promoting discussion but not a solution.


China’s support for the six-party talks should be put in the context of its role in helping to arm North Korea in the first place.  Beijing appears to have encouraged Pyongyang to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons using uranium cores.  Moreover, the Chinese have been directly responsible for Pakistan’s nuclearization and have had a hand in transferring Pakistani technology to North Korea. 



What is the solution to the nuclear crisis?

The world, if it so chooses, can disarm North Korea.  If Kim Jong Il saw that every nation demanded the surrender of his weapons, he would have to comply.  The fact Kim still possesses his arsenal shows that the international community is not united. 


So how does America create cooperation to disarm North Korea?  Efforts like the current ones are obviously not the answer.  Conventional diplomacy has made virtually no progress since 2002 when the current version of the North Korean crisis erupted.  To prevail in this contest, America has to employ bold tactics.  In a contest decided by legitimacy and credibility as much as by power, the United States may have to take a giant first step and honor the obligations it undertook in the NPT to seek the elimination of nuclear weapons—its own as well as others’. 


To stop Kim Jong Il Washington will need the help of its foes as well as its friends.  Elimination of nuclear stockpiles around the world would not persuade Kim to give up his arsenal—he would undoubtedly like to be the only leader with the bomb—but it would create the desire, and even the urgency, on the part of other nations to disarm him.  With global momentum against him and without external support, the North Korean would have little alternative but to turn in his nukes. 


The United States does not need to achieve complete abolition—or even arrive at an agreement with others to do so—to build worldwide momentum against North Korea’s nuclear program.  It may be sufficient if America unilaterally scraps a large portion of its own weapons.   



Would the United States benefit from arms reduction? 

No country would benefit more from worldwide disarmament.  America may be the strongest nation today, but neither size nor strength matters that much in a nuclear-weapons world.  Any nation with just one bomb can indefinitely stalemate Washington.  Any terrorist with uranium can incinerate an American city.  Why would the United States not do everything it can to eliminate the only threat to its continued existence?  By giving up its most destructive weapon, America would, paradoxically, become even more powerful.


Creating a global wave against North Korea carries virtually no cost for the United States.  American planners want to reduce the size of the nation’s strategic nuclear forces anyway as they are far larger than necessary to counter existing threats.  The Pentagon’s stockpile is so big and well protected that elimination of most of its nukes would have no discernable effect on either the nation’s security or its ability to protect allies.  The American president can give the order to eliminate all human life on this planet several times over.  If he decides to reduce his arsenal so that he can kill everyone only once, are his constituents any less safe?


Yet they will certainly be in greater danger if proliferation continues.  Over time, every nation that wants the bomb will get the bomb.  Eventually, terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear device.  Straight-line extrapolations are often wrong, but these are so compelling. 



Is arms reduction feasible?

America, as noted, is already reducing its Cold War nuclear arsenal.  Its stockpile is still far too large for current threats.  So further cuts are possible.


Complete disarmament, on the other hand, is considered impractical, even by its proponents.  It’s important to recognize one point, however.  Ultimately, other nations will force Washington to make a choice: give up all its nuclear weapons or accept continued proliferation.  At some times what is necessary is not considered practical.  History shows that those moments are followed by uncertainty, turmoil, and death in great numbers. 


So Americans have a choice.  They can either expand their notions of what is practical or be prepared to accept the worst consequences.   My choice is to start confronting reality and see what we can do to protect our families, our neighbors, and our society.


Nuclear weapons cannot be “uninvented,” but getting rid of them is by no means impossible.  Even during the Cold War Ronald Reagan almost clinched a complete disarmament deal with Gorbachev in 1986. 



Is disarmament ultimately necessary? 

The global nonproliferation treaty permits five nations to retain nuclear weapons and prohibits the remainder of the world from developing them.  This two-tiered structure is inherently discriminatory and ultimately unstable.  As long as nukes are a currency of power, some nations will covet them.  Many of those nations will not be threats to global order, but some will.  And we’re not talking about a limited problem.  There are perhaps forty countries that could nuclearize in the space of a couple years if they decided to do so.


Kenneth Waltz, a giant in the field of international relations, argues that the gradual spread of nuclear weapons would be a stabilizing influence.  Possession of the bomb, he argues, makes national leaders responsible.  Unfortunately, there is less than meets the eye to his more-is-better theory.  China, for example, has proliferated nuclear technologies to dangerous regimes to achieve long-held foreign policy goals, and several Pakistani presidents have watched their scientists sell expertise and equipment to other dangerous states.  And then there is al-Qaeda, which talks about “an American Hiroshima.”  How can we believe that its possession of a nuke will moderate its behavior?


Conventional diplomatic strategies can slow proliferation but not stop it altogether.  Military force can disarm a nation, but America cannot invade every country that wants the bomb.  There is only one long-term solution.



Why won’t current diplomatic initiatives work?

It is comforting to think that we will be able to meet tomorrow’s challenges with yesterday’s approaches, but too much has changed since the end of the Cold War.  Conventional diplomacy got us into this bind, so it’s unlikely that conventional thinking will save us.  Unfortunately, there are times when the middle way does not work any more.


So now the greatest risk is not taking one.  At no time has humankind taken a risk and surrendered its most powerful weapons.  For many, it is hard to believe that nations will ever consider giving up their nukes.  Americans in particular may reject disarmament, but then they must be prepared to live in the most dangerous world imaginable.  They can have nuclear weapons or New York.  In the long run, it’s unlikely they will be able to keep both. 


So there must be a solution.  It need not be American, unilateral, or military, but it needs to be near-at-hand.  Now, more than at any other time in history, we have to take great risks to maintain the international order.


North Korea is taking on the world, and we have no choice but to respond.



Can North Korea be contained if it is not disarmed?

Some argue that America need not disarm North Korea because it was able to deter the Soviet Union for decades.  Moscow had a far larger—and much more capable—nuclear force than Kim Jong Il’s.  Analysts then conclude that Washington can contain North Korea indefinitely. 


North Korea is not the Soviet Union.  Moscow, especially after the early years of the Cold War, generally acted like a status-quo power.  North Korea, on the other hand, is not.  On the contrary, it has survived by institutionalizing brinkmanship.  Continual external crisis permits Kim to maintain control over an increasingly unstable society.  His reckless geopolitical behavior is an attempt to win assistance from the international community to fortify his shaky rule.  Moreover, we have to remember that the Soviets did not start World War III because of the fear of suffering horrendous casualties.  We cannot assume that Kim, who let hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions die during the great famine of the 1990s, can be deterred for the same reason.  


A policy of containment assumes that it is possible to control events for years if not decades.  Unfortunately, that is not likely in volatile Northeast Asia.  Moreover, democracies are not generally able to maintain consistent foreign policies.


Furthermore, it is inconceivable that the United States could indefinitely prevent a determined North Korea from selling a small amount of uranium or plutonium.  All it takes is one successful sale to change history.



What does Kim Jong Il want?

Apart from the continuation of his rule, we don’t really know what Kim desires.  More important, we do not know how he plans to achieve his goals.


At this stage in the nuclear crisis, it is prudent to ignore his intentions.  If there is even a possibility that Kim will fight, we should not permit him to choose the time and place.  That’s what the world let Hitler do.  Western leaders in the 1930s were obsessed by his motives when they should have been concentrating on the increases in German military might.  In hindsight, it’s clear that was a mistake of the highest order.  So far, the world has allowed Kim to dictate events as it ponders what he intends to do.  Now, we are letting him build his arsenal so he can wage war when he has a larger number of nuclear weapons and better means to deliver them.


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© 2006 Gordon G. Chang