2005 February 11 Friday
North Korea Says It Has Nuclear Bombs

North Korea's government says the place has nukes and isn't going to be pushed around by America.

"We have manufactured nukes for self-defence to cope with the Bush administration's ever more undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the [north]," the North Korean foreign ministry said in a statement carried on the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The United States is in no position to push around North Korea anyhow. The US won't attack. The North Koreans do not need US aid.

South Korea is upset with North Korea.

South Korea echoed Koizumi's comments, saying the decision to quit the talks was "regrettable" and a matter of deep concern.

South Korean government officials said a nuclear North Korea would not be tolerated.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he thought Pyongyang's statement contained an "element of bluff".

The North Koreans are bluffing? Maybe. But I think it more likely that the South Koreans are bluffing. South Korea isn't going to tolerate a nuclear North Korea? Really? What is the South going to do in response? Cut off aid? Cut trade? Invade? I doubt it.

South Korean papers think China will stop North Korea from sustaining its position as a nuclear power.

Dong-A Ilbo says the U.N. Security Council must take action. North Korea "must not forget that there is no single neighboring country, including China that will tolerate its nuclear armament."

Chosun Ilbo says, "North Korea must awaken from the self-induced trance where it believes it can gain something only when it takes on the international community head-on. ...[A]n attachment to the strategies of the past could mean that the situation spirals out of control with Pyongyang itself the ultimate victim."

I have news for the Chosun Ilbo: It was you guys and China and the United States that helped North Korea get into that trance. North was rewarded for its behavior. South Korea and China continue to reward North Korea for its behavior. So why should the Dear Leader stop?

North Korea joins a prestigious club of nuclear powers.

North Korea is now the eighth country with currently declared nuclear weapons. The others are the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, all signatories of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, and India and Pakistan, which have not signed the treaty. Israel is considered by analysts to have nuclear weapons, but has not acknowledged possessing them. South Africa built a bomb in the 1970s but later renounced its nuclear program.

My guess is that Iran will be the next member of the club. Eventually so many will join that membership will just plain lose its allure. Living in big cities and other likely targets of terrorist nukes will lose its allure for related reasons...

The Bush Administration makes light of the new pronouncement from North Korea and says this is not new news.

The White House played down the significance of the North Korean statement. "It's rhetoric we've heard before," press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters traveling with President Bush in North Carolina. "We remain committed to the six-party talks. We remain committed to a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue with regards to North Korea."

What more can the Bushies say? It is not like they are going to do anything about it regardless of what press release comes out of the Pyongyang regime in North Korea.

What is new about the latest NK statement is that it shows a greater willingness on the part of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and company to defy China and South Korea.

The South Korean press is trying to make sense of the latest news from Pyongyang.

The conservative Chosun Ilbo said in an editorial the North may be trying to raise the stakes to increase the concessions it will receive to head back to the bargaining table.

"We shall have to watch closely whether that is a real admission or simply typical of the Stalinist country's brinkmanship in attempting to ratchet up the tension with the United States," it said.

Ratchet up tensions with the United States? The US is too overextended in the Middle East to ratchet up tensions in Northeast Asia. Not going to happen. America is going to remain flaccid no matter how provocative a pose the Dear Leader assumes.

Writing for the Washington Post Glenn Kessler and Anthony Faiola think the Dear Leader and his regime are asking for acceptance of North Korea's status as a nuclear power.

By heightening the stakes in a two-year standoff, North Korea has signaled it has little interest in giving up its nuclear programs for relatively minor upfront concessions from the Bush administration -- and appears to be gambling that the United States and its allies will ultimately accept the idea of a nuclear North Korea.

At each step of the way in the crisis, the government in Pyongyang has carefully crossed once-unthinkable thresholds, with little apparent consequence. North Korea's announcement yesterday that it has nuclear weapons and is withdrawing from negotiations on its nuclear programs has once again upped the ante. But it appears unlikely it will jar the United States and its allies to take any dramatic actions, analysts and officials said.

I am guessing that Kim has a pretty good chance of gaining that acceptance. But if that happens then at some point down the line Japan may go nuclear in response. Then China may have no choice but to accept a nuclear Japan. Of course, once that happens the Taiwanese may decide to follow. In Taiwan's case nuclear power status would be the best protection from mainland Chinese ambitions to conquer the island.

Is there a bottom line in all of this? I think so: The United States by itself can not stop North Korea's nuclear program - at least not for any cost that the American public could possibly be convinced to pay. South Korea and China are helping to keep the North Korean regime viable through aid and trade. That has been true for years and it continues to be the case. North Korea's statements matter more for their effect on thinking in China and South Korea than they do for their impact on Bush Administration thinking. Regardless of Kim Jong Il's motive he is making it harder for South Korea and China to ignore his nuclear weapons development efforts. How will South Korea and China will react? Is Kim pushing to to a point where they will cut aid to North Korea in order to yank on the Dear Leader's chain? Or is there nothing short of a mushroom cloud that will change their collective minds?

This latest twist in the North Korean nuclear weapons saga reminds me of a post by Noah Millman where he argues that asking China to invade North Korea would bolster Chinese influence and prestige.

Finally, just one small point. We've adopted a "unilateralist" policy of regime change because supposedly the world can't come to agreement on who needs to be offed, at least not in a timely fashion. We, America, and "coalitions of the willing" composed of (mostly) democratic allies with similar interests will do a better job of policing the world. But here comes a proposal to have *another* nation - not an ally, not a democracy, not someone with whom we have clear common interests - unilaterally act to overthrow an odious regime on the grounds of its odiousness. Why on earth would we want to set such a precedent? And why should we prefer it to an attempt to get action authorized by some international body - fine, the UN, for all its own odiousness - that might bless the action with some legitimacy internationally, and act as a restraint on future unilateral action of this sort by other states? Particularly given that one objection to diplomacy on North Korea is that China would have to approve of any UN-authorized action against them, and China is the power we're outsourcing our "regime change" efforts to in this scenario!

It's depressing to think that anyone is seriously suggesting that the only way we can deal with North Korea is to ask the Chinese to invade and install a new regime. Depressing on so many levels, I don't know how to count them.

Asking for Chinese help on North Korea is - regardless of whether that help comes in the form of something as extreme as invasion or less extreme measures like an aid cut-off to North Korea - is going to make rather undemocratic China have more prestige and power. But, hey, there is no alternative way to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program and China is a rapidly rising power that is likely to eventually surpass the United States as a military power at some point in the 21st century anyhow.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 February 11 01:56 AM  Korea

Stephen said at February 11, 2005 6:14 AM:

Two things, first, just because NK says they have a bomb doesn't mean that they have got one. I'd be inclined to discount any such claim until we see a test explosion.

Second, the diplomatic tone the US is taking with NK contrasts strongly with its tone with Iraq. The lesson must be clear to every two-bit dictator - bomb=respect.

Stephen said at February 11, 2005 6:27 AM:

Oh, and my guess is that if NK does in fact have a bomb, then the next country to get one won't be Iran, but SK. Japan might not be that far behind, though things would need to get really really bad before it went public.

Ned said at February 11, 2005 8:44 AM:

The situation with NK just continues to fascinate. First, it's clear that the US (and the UN) aren't going to do anything except talk tough (something the UN is especially good at). Heavily committed in Iraq, the US lacks the resources to act, and the UN lacks the will as well as the resources. Also, although there are 35,000 US troops in South Korea, the Americans might question whether they really have a vital interest here.

Several years ago, when I was visiting Beijing, I met with the American ambassador to the PRC (I won't say which one - he probably doesn't want to be quoted). I asked him about the Korean situation and how the PRC would view a nuclear-armed NK. He said that the PRC would not be happy about it, not that NK posed any threat to China, but because of the potential domino effect in the region. South Korea would almost certainly acquire nuclear weapons, then maybe Japan, then maybe Taiwan, if only to counterbalance the threat from NK. If this happened, the PRC would have three new nuclear neighbors, all of them more or less hostile. This in addition to China's current nuclear neighbors, India, Pakistan and Russia. Also, the PRC is quietly concerned about the eventual collapse of the NK regime (people often don't starve to death quietly). This would almost certainly lead to reunification under SK leadership, creating a potential new foe right on China's doorstep. This gives the PRC a reason not to withhold aid which is propping up the NK regime.

So China, too, may find her options with NK rather limited, perhaps more limited than many people realize. These countries tend to be densely populated, so any sort of nuclear war in the region would be an absolute disaster (NK has already shown its ability to test-fire a missle over Japan). But beyond this, China is the major power with the most to lose here. It will be interesting to see how she reacts.

gcochran said at February 11, 2005 10:11 AM:

Actually, people do starve to death quietly.

PacRim Jim said at February 11, 2005 3:09 PM:

Next, Japan and possibly South Korea will go nuclear. China will love that.
Since S. Korea has been so hostile to America recently, now is the optimal time to yank out our troops and let South Korea deal with North Korea in its own foolish way.
Just remember, Seoul is close to the N. Korean border. Kim Jong-Il could get a nuke there with a catapult.
Happy New Year, Korea.

Proborders said at February 11, 2005 7:40 PM:

Stephen and Ned, if South Korea follows North Korea into the nuclear club (if North Korea really has nuclear weapons), Japan will be the only country in that part of the world without nuclear weapons.

Ned, I think Japan is potentially more negatively affected by a North Korea with nuclear weapons than China is. North Korea would, I think, be more likely to launch nukes against Japan than against China.

PacRim Jim, a US withdrawal from South Korea could lead to South Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons.

I think that South Korea and Japan might actually not acquire nuclear weapons in the near future even if North Korea really has nuclear weapons. The US could stop trade with South Korea and Japan if those countries decided to acquire nuclear weapons. Or the US could stop trade with the two countries if South Korea and Japan announce that they have nukes and refuse to relinquish them.

How could the USA deal with a nuclear North Korea?

Plan A. A comprehensive ban on trade with North Korea. Any country that trades with North Korea would not be allowed to trade with the USA. This would include China, Japan, and South Korea.

Plan A is risky, of course. If North Korea actually has nukes, the North Korean regime may launch missiles with nukes toward Japan or South Korea. Anti-Americanism could increase in China, Japan, and South Korea.

Plan B. The US confirms its treaty obligation to defend Japan and South Korea if either is attacked. The US communicates to the North Korean regime that any nuclear attack by North Korea on Japan, South Korea, or the US will lead to the utter devastation of all of North Korea.

In my opinion the Bush Administration should use the North Korean announcement as a reason to further increase military spending.

Stephen said at February 11, 2005 7:43 PM:

In the event of an NK invasion, the plan is for SK forces to delay the NK advance, with the small US force in reserve. The idea is that the time bought by the SK delaying action will allow the US to fly in troop reinfocements and ship in pre-positioned hardware - eventually massing some 650,000 troops. The problem is obvious - the US doesn't have 650,000 troops available for deployment because most are guarding sanddunes in Iraq, and the pre-positioned hardware is no longer pre-positioned, but has been deployed elsewhere. With the US tied down in Iraq, NK hasn't been in a better position to invade SK for 20yrs.

That said, I think NK would still lose. The NK forces are modeled after soviet ww2 style tactics and equipment - basically arty heavy with mobile infantry, supplemented by a few 60s vintage AT missiles. NK's big problem is that they would be relying on mass arty and infantry formations in a theatre where they won't have air superiority for more than a few hours. That means that the B52s would eventually arrive and bomb the arty and infantry without much trouble.

Politically speaking, if the NK forces were routed, then the NK regime might collapse. This would be good for the long suffering NK citizens.

Of course there's still the touchy matter of chemical weapons to deal with, and you will note that I discount entirely NK's claim to have a nuke.

Stephen said at February 11, 2005 8:11 PM:

As for stopping Japan or SK going nuclear, the trade sanction option doesn't work - their economies are too big and sanctions would likely plunge the world into recession. The US would be worst hit by a recession.

As for containing NK, I think that NK has already said that trade sanctions would be viewed as an act of war. Plan B assumes that we are dealing with rational people - I don't think the Dear Leader would care, and the citizens of NK would never know.

Stephen said at February 11, 2005 8:21 PM:

Proborder, after critiquing your proposed strategy, I think its only fair to present my own:

My premis is that while the NK regime is collectively irrational as a rabid dog, the individuals making up the regime are actually sane. So, my strategy is to directly advise Dear Leader and each member of the regimes top two echelons that they will each be personally targetted for assassination in the event of any attack on SK - irrespective of whether the attack is conventional or nuclear, and irrespective of whether the attack succeeds or fails. The message is that for them an attack has only one guaranteed outcome - their deaths.

Randall Parker said at February 12, 2005 3:59 PM:


I agree with you that the US can't afford trade sanctions against Japan. My advice to the Japanese and even more so to the Taiwanese is get yourselves some nukes!

As for an NK attack on SK: The South Koreans ought to develop their own JDAM bombs and beat back an NK attack without our help. I'm for a US withdrawal from South Korea. I see a net benefit for the US if the South Koreans go nuclear. We are not going to stop NK's nuclear program. So let SK develop nukes as a counterweight. Or let South Korea and China feel forced to get tough with North Korea. They are the ones keeping the NK regime in business. Let them deal with the consequences.

Bob Badour said at February 12, 2005 10:19 PM:


Why would we care if Japan or SK has nukes? You make it sound like the US would want to curtail that.

PacRim Jim said at February 13, 2005 12:25 AM:

You seem to assume that U.S. doesn't want Japan to go nuclear. It would infuriate and distract China, which seems to assume that other nations will submit meekly to its hegemony in East Asia. Japan could deploy a few thousand nuclear-tipped missles in about 15 seconds, were they determined to do so.

eric said at February 14, 2005 9:37 AM:

US comes out head in the short term and long term if both J and SK go nuclear ASAP, It would really crimp china if T island went nuke too, It would not hurt for the "down unders" (Aussies) have their own.
China is a dragon awakening, if we let the dragon awake slowly and gather herself it will be a bad thing for the T island, US, Japan, SK and Aussies, If we make China deal with the NK mess (Which they created, and we help it be messy for them) it could easily bring the dragon down a couple notches and let her neighbors see that china is not a pleasant ally to have and has no good intentions for anybody.
The US will fight China if China does not change government, It will be worse then the "Cold War" and It could easily be the end of USA as it is now (Thatís WWV, folks and it's coming and it will be hot, how hot depends on today)

Rich Walden said at February 15, 2005 7:59 AM:

NK poses a greater threat to China than to anyone else. Because China supports NK, they are seen as either promoting or aquesing (sp)to the NK policies. The use of nukes by NK has to be Chinas worst nightmare. It would truly let the genie out of the bottle and every one of the surrounding nations would obtain nukes right down to Nepal. I am sure that China would like nothing better than a regime change in NK and I would not be suprised to find that they are working towards that at this moment.

Rich Walden said at February 15, 2005 8:07 AM:

NK poses a greater threat to China than to anyone else. Because China supports NK, they are seen as either promoting or aquesing (sp)to the NK policies. The use of nukes by NK has to be Chinas worst nightmare. It would truly let the genie out of the bottle and every one of the surrounding nations would obtain nukes right down to Nepal. I am sure that China would like nothing better than a regime change in NK and I would not be suprised to find that they are working towards that at this moment.

Ned said at February 16, 2005 11:41 AM:

China is still the potential big loser here, absent an all-out nuclear war between some of these countries. The NK nukes (if they exist) don't pose any direct threat to the Chinese, the NK leaders aren't THAT crazy, and anyway, they regard the PRC as their only ally. No, the threat comes from the acquisition of nuclear weapons by SK, Japan and Taiwan, all more or less hostile to China. The US might publicly deplore this but secretly be rather pleased to see the PRC come down a notch or two and have to worry about a nuclear threat on her doorstep. Economic sanctions against NK won't change the regime's behavior and might cause it to collapse, sending millions of refugees across the Chinese and SK borders and leading to probable reunification under SK leadership. Because of heavy committments in Iraq, the US doesn't have much in the way of military options here. The 35,000 US troops in SK begin to look more like a libility, especially if NK does have nuclear weapons. In response to a hypothetical NK nuclear attack on Japan or SK, is the US really going to respond with nuclear weapons so close to China's border? Removing the troops right now would send exactly the wrong message to NK, but, in the long run, SK, Japan and Taiwan are going to have to take increasing responsibility for their own defense, with or without nuclear weapons. US troops in the region made sense 50 years ago, not now. Japan, Taiwan and SK are all vibrant democracies with high per capita GDP's (Japan has the second-largest economy in the world). And Chinese foreign policy has been rather conservative and inward-looking for the last 50 years, absent the invasion of Tibet and the bullying of Taiwan, which so far is just words. It certainly lacks the global adventurism characteristic of US and Soviet foreign policy. Unless there is an all-out attack by the PRC (extremely unlikely), it's time for the democracies in this region to take more responsibility for their own defense.

Patrick said at February 17, 2005 4:45 AM:

A friend who shall remain nameless, working for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, told me once that Australia could assemble a basic nuclear weapon in 24 hours. That's Australia, with one working reactor in the country. Japan has a nuclear industry hundreds of times larger. Even if the 24 hour time frame is fixed, the Japs could still do hundreds in parallel.
No doubt S.Korea and Taiwan are somewhere in between those two cases.
(Off Topic, I would bet that Germany, Italy, and half a dozen others are in a similar situation. No they don't actually have any nukes right now, but they could assemble them and have them in the air before the first tank column across their border has time to reach the capital.)

And I wouldn't bet that China's government would be absolutely sure that the NorKs aren't quite crazy enough to have a nuke pointed at Beijing (which is quite close to Korea by the way.) They probably don't, and probably wouldn't, but if a Chinese army was to invade, I wouldn't be in Beijing.

Ned said at February 17, 2005 5:41 AM:

For an interesting article on the shifting balance of power in the region see http://news.ft.com/cms/s/b5f01a94-804f-11d9-bd50-00000e2511c8.html.

Proborders said at February 20, 2005 12:14 PM:

Stephen and Randall, if China and the US decided to stop trade between Japan and other nations and also between South Korea and other nations in order to prevent Japan and South Korea from attaining nuclear weapons, the Japanese and South Korean economies would probably collapse.

The US Navy in the Middle East could block oil tankers from going to either Japan or South Korea. In the western Pacific the navies of the PRC and the US could prevent oil tankers from reaching Japan and South Korea.

Bob and PacRim Jim, I think there would be many who would not want Japan to obtain nuclear weapons. Asian countries that were occupied by Japanese forces during World War 2 might not want Japan to have nukes. Some veterans (and their descendants) of the Pacific theater of World War 2 would be opposed to Japanís acquiring of nuclear weapons. Some liberals might be opposed because of Japanís actions during World War 2, Japanís World War 2 alliance with Nazi Germany, and Japanís World War 2 alliance against the Soviet Union. Some think that the US and Japan might become adversaries again. These people would probably opposed to Japanís acquiring of nuclear weapons.

Ned said at February 21, 2005 6:52 AM:

The US is not going to engage in any sort of trade sanctions angainst Japan (or SK). Japan is the key US ally in the region, and relations between the countries are much too interdependent for any sort of embargo to even be considered. Further, the US probably doesn't care too much whether or not Japan goes nuclear.

Other Asian nations are a different story. I was in Asia in 1991 for the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Pacific war. The anti-Japanese feeling was intense. The newspapers (in Hong Kong and Singapore) ran long stories about the Japanese occupation. Memorials and demonstrations were held. Television stations showed documentaries about Japanese crimes. Pretty strong stuff.

I once knew a lady who was from the Phillipines. On her way home, she bought a Nikon camera in a duty-free shop. When she got home, her father bawled her out and wouldn't let her bring the camera into the house because it was made in Japan. He remembered the war. Have you ever gone through customs in the PRC? If you can't write Chinese, you may fill out your customs forms in English, French or Spanish. Not Japanese, even though many of the characters are similar (I'm no expert here, but so I've been told). The anti-Japanese feeling is very strong among the Chinese, especially the older generation.

I'm sure the Japanese leadership would prefer that this whole thing just go away. Pacificism is strong in Japan. The Japanese military (the Self-Defense Force) is extremely good but small. If NK develops a nuclear weapons program that directly threatens Japan, the Japanese leadership will be in a quandry. A Japanese nuclear weapons program would intensify anti-Japanese feelings in Asian countries that were victims of Japanese aggression in WW II. Trade embargoes are a real possibility here. On the other hand, what else is Japan to do to prevent NK nuclear blackmail? The US is committed to the defense of both Japan and SK. What the US would do remains an open question, but don't be surprised if the US doesn't (very quietly) welcome Japan's taking more responsibility fer her own defense.

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