2003 March 05 Wednesday
Stanley Kurtz On The Strategic Dilemma Posed By North Korea

North Korea has shown a willingness to sell any weapons technology they can develop. Therefore Kurtz argues that the current course of events will eventually lead to nuclear terrorism against the United States.

Continuation of this situation will be catastrophic for the United States. In the short term, North Korean sales of plutonium would lead to dirty bombs in American cities, rendering sections of Washington or New York uninhabitable for generations. In the medium term, plutonium sales will doubtless lead to full-scale nuclear blasts, set off by terrorists, in American cities. These will kill hundreds of thousands, even millions of Americans. Full-scale nuclear arms proliferation to rogue nations will also lead to yet more nuclear blackmail, of the type being practiced by Korea right now.

The problem is that the best course of action to save American cities places Seoul South Korea in danger of destruction and loss of millions of lives. Kurtz argues that other nations have a strong incentive to disassociate themselves from the US war on terror and rogue regimes.

The policy that best saves Washington and New York most risks Seoul. And this is because South Korea (like Europe) is gradually being transformed from a frontline Cold War tripwire into potential collateral damage in a direct battle between the United States and terrorists and rogue regimes armed with weapons of mass destruction. After a Korean conflict in which both the North and the South are devastated, the world would shun America as a dangerous pariah and from the perspective of the world's interests, this would not be entirely without justification.

If the US moves against North Korea then it risks becoming a pariah. If the US doesn't move against North Korea then eventually the US will lose some American cities to nuclear terrorism. Throughout the world it is widely believed that the United States can't possibly be threatened because it is enormously more powerful than any other nation. Yet in spite of this power the growing abilities of American adversaries to conduct asymmetric warfare leaves the United States facing a terrible strategic dilemma.

Some argue for a preemptive strike against Yongbyon. While it is impossible to predict what the North Korean response would be let us suppose the North Korean regime would decide not to respond by attacking South Korea. Then would such a preemptive strike be sufficient to remove the threat posed by North Korea? Probably not. The reactivation of the Yongbyon facility is just one step toward current crisis and Yongbyon is not the only source of weapons grade material that the North Koreans have. The detection of North Korean uranium enrichment efforts (that last link has a great collection of information on what is publically know about the North Korean uranium enrichment efforts) which started back in the 1990s and the North Korean acknowledgement of that program are what led to the current crisis.

While US intelligence has identified a few sites that might be doing uranium enrichment it is not clear that the US can be certain that an air strike would knock out all uranium enrichment facilities. How big is the uranium enrichment equipment? Could North Korea move it rapidly and hide some of it in advance of signs of a preemptive strike? Might the North Koreans already have moved some of the plutonium from Yongbyon to a facility that is unknown to US intelligence? It is not clear that a preemptive strike against North Korea's nuclear faciliities would remove the threat that North Korea poses to the US.

Is a diplomatic solution possible? Given that China is clearly unwilling to help this seems unlikely. Even if China was willing any solution would have to involve an extremely powerful inspections regime. See the Inspections and Sanction archive for information about why inspections won't work against a regime determined to do WMD development.

If a preemptive strike limited to North Korean nuclear facilities may not work and if a diplomatic solution seems unlikely and unworkable where does that leave us? The only sure way to end the threat posed by North Korea is regime overthrow. That will come in one of three ways. The first way would be a war this year possibly as an outgrowth of a preemptive strike that North Korea responded to with an attack on South Korea or possibly as a result of a North Korean provocation that was too great to ignore. The second way a war could start would be some years from now as a response to a radiological or nuclear attack on US cities by terrorists. The third way would be an internal revolt against the regime in North Korea.

The Bush Administration may turn out to be unwilling to attack North Korea this year. In spite of a Bush Administration decision to exercise restraint the North Korean regime might still accidentally or intentionally do something that provides a pretext for a retaliatory strike and so the decision is not entirely in the hands of the Bush Administration. However, if war doesn't happen then the crisis will stretch out and build up for years to come. In that case war might still be avoided if the United States was to weaken the control of the North Korean regime enough to cause its downfall. The most powerful policy the US could adopt to increase the odds of that happening would be to make a large effort to break the information monopoly that the North Korean regime holds over its people. An effort to break the information monopoly would include much more extensive Korean language broadcasts into North Korea, smuggling in of books and small radios, and attempts to deliver radios and books onto beaches using ships and even submarines to release plastic-sealed bouyant books and radios near the North Korean coastline. Also, a very active effort to reach North Korean diplomats and other elite regime members living abroad to provide them with information and to turn them into agents coiuld be pursued.

A massive attempt to break the information monopoly in North Korea is not guaranteed to lead to the downfall of the North Korean regime. But in light of the strategic dilemma that North Korea poses for the United States it seems irresponsible not to make a massive attempt to reach the North Korean people with information about the rest of the world.

Update: The North Korean regime is basically holding South Korea hostage so that it can develop and eventually sell weapons of mass destruction. By this estimate the North Koreans could kill four and a half million South Koreans rather quickly at the outbreak of war.

Use chemical weapons. One estimate, cited by GlobalSecurity.org, says North Korea could kill 38 percent of Seoul's 12 million people by hitting the city with 50 missiles carrying nerve gas.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 March 05 10:34 AM  Politics Grand Strategy


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