The Wrong Country in the Crosshairs

Forget about Iran, here’s who we should really be worried about.  A country that openly possesses nuclear weapons, has sold nuclear technologies and information to pretty much anyone willing to buy, and is the world’s worst proliferator of missiles.  And they are certifiably crazy – paranoid delusional, with yet another generation of the worst kind of corrupt and absolute dictator with his boot on the throat of his people. North Korea is a clear, avowed threat to its neighbors, South Korea and Japan. And it seems that North Korea is, even if slowly, steadily progressing its missile and nuclear weapons programs to eventually reach the capability to put a miniaturized nuclear warhead on the nose of a ballistic missile and shoot it wherever their nutty heads think it should go. Including at their avowed arch enemy, the US.

North Korea scares me a whole lot more than Iran does, in terms of the actual threat they pose both to their neighbors and to me.  I have pretty much zero faith in the rationality of their decisionmaking, and I genuinely don’t know what they’re likely to do if/when they eventually achieve this ultimate capability.

I know well the military/security challenges posed by the proximity of Seoul to the border. And of course as a legal matter, since North Korea withdrew from the NPT and its IAEA CSA, there is effectively no substantive international law restraining it from any of these actions (short of actually using a nuclear weapon). Only a raft of U.N. Security Council resolutions. I would say, though, that all of the energy the US is expending on addressing Iran’s nuclear program, and Israel’s concerns about it, should be immediately switched over to deal with an actual threat to international peace and security – North Korea.


12 Comments on “The Wrong Country in the Crosshairs”

  1. There’s a very simple reason why the US can’t and won’t apply more pressure to North Korea. They can’t afford to for two reasons:

    1) As you note, North Korea is not particularly rational – at least not when compared to most states, including Iran. Therefore, more pressure applied to them would merely cause them to up the ante. The only time North Korea behaved rationally was when Bill Clinton negotiated the Agreed Framework – which he and then Bush both reneged on – which is why the North has nukes today.

    2) North Korea has a million-man army with literally thousands of missiles and artillery pieces which they could use to destroy Seoul, South Korea, within 72 hours. They can drop half a million artillery shells PER HOUR on US troops stationed near the border – which is why those 25,000-odd troops are being moved south of Seoul. North Korea has a 120,000 man Special Forces command. Those guys are tough. An NK sub went aground in South Korean waters some years back and 2 NK Special Forces escaped the roundup. They stayed on the run for 50 days or more and killed 11 of their pursuers. And North Korea is seriously dug in with fortifications – you’d have to use nukes to dig them out.

    Pentagon war games indicate 50,000 US casualties within the first ninety days of a hot war with North Korea – a casualty rate even the US military-industrial complex isn’t ready to accept in exchange for war profits, apparently – not when Iran is such an easier target.

    Also, China would not be happy to have US troops on its borders – which is why it entered the first Korean War. The possibility of escalation with China is too dangerous.

    The best thing for the US to do is negotiate like Bill Clinton did for renewed engagement with North Korea – just as it should with Iran. Sanctions and threats to North Korea will never work.

  2. Dan Joyner says:

    Hi Richard,
    Yes I don’t disagree with anything you say here, and I know that these are the complications that have kept any positive movement in addressing the situation from happening. But I also have to say that I think your prescription – more negotiation with NK – is dispiriting. I think if the diplomatic history with NK has taught us one thing its that deals made with NK are not reliable and do not last. I’m sure theres lots of fingerpointing to go around on why past deals havent worked out, but I personally think that the constant variable throughout is the NK side just not being reliable and not acting in good faith. So I really dont see much hope for a negotiated solution that actually pans out. Again, though, I agree with you that sanctions and military threats are not the answer either.

    I know I probably come across as a pacifist in alot of my writing, but I’m actually not. And I’m not saying I’ve given this a ton of thought. I’m certainly not saying that its legal. But this sort of situation in which there is a cult of personality – here vested in a family – that is essentially keeping a whole nation down, it would sure be appealing in many ways if we could seal team six the upper echelon of NK leadership. I’m not at all an NK specialist, and I dont know what would happen if the people of NK woke up one morning to find a vaccum of power at the top – or if such a vacuum could even be created in this way. The ideal situation, though, would be that in such a power vacuum, the people of NK would take the opportunity to put into power a much better government for themselves, and that that change of government would produce the changes in NK domestic and foreign policy that we’d all like to see.

    • I certainly wouldn’t expect negotiations with NK to be highly effective any time soon. But what Clinton managed to achieve was NK putting a halt to its nuclear weapons development for a period of some years – until he reneged on delivering what he promised. This indicates that while the North is definitely not particularly rational, it still has a requirement to maintain its power and is prepared to negotiate for external support to maintain that power by seeking help dealing with its most critical economic issues. This is the “way in” for negotiations.

      There’s no way you could take out the NK power structure, even if you managed to take out the Kim family itself. It would just create a power vacuum for the military. This might or might not help depending on who seized power. “Better the Devil you know”, as they say. The Kim family has no desire to commit suicide – but who knows what fanatical military officers might decide to do in retaliation.

      The cost of any such attack would be the destruction of Seoul, scores of thousands of US dead, hundreds of thousands of South Korean dead, and probably a million North Korean dead.

      I’d say regardless of how disruptive NK is, the alternative is worse. It’s not a question of pacifism, it’s a question of cost-benefit analysis.

      If North Korea ever does unilaterally attack South Korea, then of course there will be no alternative but to take it out. But that would be the last resort.

      The main goal of negotiations is to buy time for the regime to weaken and/or evolve to a less threatening state (or for China to take a hand in reining it in.) A policy of engagement and containment is always better than military action right up to the point where preemptive war turns out to be necessary.

      In any event, the history of NK shows that rabid rhetoric is their main export, and it can generally be ignored most of the time. Their export of missile technology and even nuclear technology is mostly due to their need for money to buy continued survival for the regime. The consequences of that proliferation are fairly meaningless in the broader geopolitical context. Only their efforts with Pakistan have been serious and that has mainly produced a “MAD” strategic stalemate between Pakistan and India.

      The North’s efforts elsewhere – Iran and Syria – have been mostly irrelevant to those countries. Iran has used NK’s as a springboard for what is essentially a defensive strategy of missile deployment. So I wouldn’t call that a negative if it helps deter an Iran war (note: I don’t say that it does, only that is the intent.)

      North Korea is generally not an effective geopolitical actor except in regards to South Korea. They will never have enough deliverable nukes to threaten the US and they will be unlikely to threaten Japan as well, given Japan’s ability to produce thousands of nukes within a relatively short time, not to mention the “nuclear umbrella” the US provides Japan. China is something of a “governor” on North Korea and I wouldn’t be surprised to see China eventually take the lead in changing the North Korean regime in some manner to reduce their irritation and prevent a war with the US which would put US troops on their borders.

      All in all, North Korea is not really something to worry about – as long as they aren’t pushed to a wall.

  3. yousaf says:

    FYI — Vali Nasr weighs in:

    US-led sanctions on Iran will be unable to influence events in Iran very much more, and have started to have a negative effect of strengthening Iran’s desire to develop a nuclear weapon so as to achieve greater leverage in future negotiations.

    “Sanctions are coming to an end, and having watched events in North Korea, Iran knows that it will have more leverage in the talks with the US if it has a bomb,” said Vali Nasr of John Hopkins University in Washington.

  4. Solon says:

    After reading the first few sentences of your article, I thought you were going to identify Israel:
    -openly possesses nuclear weapons — check
    -sell technology and information to anyone — check
    -world’s worst proliferator of missiles — don’t know how two “worsts” can exist simultaneously, but sale of weaponry provides one of Israel’s most important revenue streams, so — check
    – certifiably crazy — check: psychotic, according to Israeli psychologist Avigail Abarbanel
    -for all that Israel holds elections, 4 million Palestinian and Israeli Arabs were disenfranchised from the recent voting, and Israeli leaders hold not only their boots but high-tech weapons in the hands of IDF and other, multiple layers of border guards, militias, etc. on well over a million persons in Israel’s orbit but who do not conform to Israeli racial preferences. — another check.
    -Israel can draw upon the financial, military and political support of the world’s richest, strongest, and most malleable, therefore corrupt, power in the world, the USA and its Congress.

    Israel, and the United States, scare me far more than Iran and North Korea combined.

    • Agreed. It’s one thing to be a isolated fanatical secular dictatorship that everyone hates and no one helps – and another to be a fanatical religious, imperialist, colonialist, illegal, rogue, terrorist state that has the unconditional support of the world’s biggest superpower and has the stated goal of ethnic cleansing of millions of people and the control of the entire Middle East “from the Nile to the Euphrates” – and has an estimated 250 nuclear weapons, including second strike capability.

      No one ever asks WHY Israel has that many nuclear weapons. They don’t have that many enemies in the Middle East that they could ever expend that many in defending themselves.

      Those nukes exist to threaten THE REST OF THE WORLD. As in the example, in 1973 they threatened to nuke the Aswan Dam if the US did not resupply them. Not to mention the alleged “Samson Option” should Israel’s back ever be against the wall. Those nukes exist to blackmail the rest of the world into letting Israel do what it pleases.

      This is the ONE example of nukes being used for geopolitical cover. Iran (and North Korea) could never pull that off because it will never have enough nukes to be a credible threat before being attacked by someone. Israel has already pulled it off due to support from the US. And the rest of the world is going to sorely regret that fact.

      Nuclear disarmament of Israel should be the number one priority of the international community, not Iran.

      • Solon says:

        In “Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country – And Why They Can’t Make Peace,” Patrick Tyler explained Moshe Dayan’s “detonator” policy:

        ” Dayan gave this speech to General Staff after the Six day war:
        “When someone wishes to force on us things that will be detrimental to our existence, there will be an explosion, which will shake up wide areas. And realizing this, such elements in the international system will do their utmost to prevent damage to us.”

        He acknowledged that this was not a very constructive thesis, but it was a thesis that, he said, “we should be a kind of a biting beast capable of developing a crisis beyond our borders. If anyone tries to harm us, the explosion will do damage to others.”

        In trying to assess whether Israel will launch a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear complex, possibly triggering a broad Middle Eastern war and a new shock to the world economy, western leaders need to take into account israel’s capacity to play this detonator role, which is still intrinsic to the military outlook, and it’s a strategy which now closely conforms with how Netanyahu is posturing his government in demanding that red lines be drawn in the case of Iran as a trigger for war. . . .”

        I originally thought Dayan’s policy was an extension of Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall doctrine, and/or based on Hebrew scripture Sampson option. Maybe so, but British soldier Orde Wingate was Dayan’s ideological and tactical mentor, and Wingate taught Dayan the scorched earth policies he carried out, and reinforced his hatred of Arabs. Zionism has many fathers.

    • Denis says:

      That is so funny, Solon. I thought the exact same thing: Here comes a serious take-down of Israel.

      Having just survived another inaugural address, I can’t help thinking back to the one of 1961, one of the most well crafted in the history of the US, where JFK so famously said:

      “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

      That lofty rhetoric sounds pretty flaccid in view of the NoKo situation today, assuming we agree that NoKo is a threat to liberty. Of course, JFK was deliberately vague about who’s liberty was being assured.

      But with respect to nuclear disarmament in the ME, JFK’s line needs to be adapted to say that the US is willing to “oppose any friend and support any foe” if need be.

      For example, Obama got it 180 degrees wrong when he promised Bibi in 2009 that if Iran ever launched a nuke at Israel, the US would respond in kind against Iran. The “nuclear umbrella.” He should have promised a nuclear umbrella to Iran against a preemptive nuclear attack by Israel in return for Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA. Such a promise would have been accepted with arms wide open by Tehran and would have cooled the region considerably by neutralizing Israel’s persistent nuclear threat.

      Israel [not Iran and not NoKo] is the one with hundreds of nukes and the means to deliver them Israel [not Iran and not NoKo] is the one who has made numerous threats to attack its neighbors — including the not-so-implicit Sampson Option. Israel [not Iran and not NoKo] is the one who, as noted by Richard, has made a specific conditional threat that it would nuke Egypt. If NoKo is crazy — and it may be — then, by comparison, Israel is flat-out psychopathic. And if there’s one thing scarier than a psychopath, it’s an armed psychopath. And that is intentional. Dayan, whom you note below, was the one who also said Israel had to appear like a rabid dog to the rest or the world. Well, he sure got that right.

      In order to defuse the situation in the ME and put it on the road to disarmament, the US should be opposing its rabid dog friend and supporting its foes, and making it clear to Israel (and the rest of the world) that any preemptive nuke attack in the ME will be met in kind. Israel needs to be clear that its greatest “existential threat” is its own stockpile of nukes and nasty attitude.

  5. This article makes the case that while a nuclear test is likely in the cards (and so far those have been duds), the rest of it is the usual NK rhetoric and threats which never come to anything.

    What’s the threat? North Korean rhetoric, reality

  6. And as I mentioned, China is not happy with NK either…

    China may axe North Korea aid

    China is caught between a rock and a hard place. They have to keep NK’s economy floating because otherwise they get a flood of NK refugees they don’t want. So they oppose UN sanctions. But on the other hand, they can’t allow NK to start a war that brings US troops on their borders, so they have to pressure NK to shut up frequently. If China thought they could live with a unified Korea WITHOUT US troops, they’d probably find a way to dump the NK regime since it’s nothing but a headache to them.

    South Korea’s economy now has larger trade relations with China than with the US, so China wouldn’t mind Korea being unified under SK leadership as long as US troops were expelled. And much of South Korea’s population would like that, too, since they don’t particularly like US troops who occasionally rape their women.

  7. This article has made me nervous that Obama and the US military-industrial complex may actually be ratcheting up the pressure on NK for purposes of getting a war started.

    North Korean test shows US policy failings

    I wasn’t aware that the policy of moving the US troops on the DMZ south of Seoul had been REVERSED. Based on Pentagon war games, the US can expect 50,000 US casualties in the first ninety days of the war. Those 25,000 or so US troops on the DMZ will be the first casualties, probably within the first week. North Korea can drop half a million artillery shells on them EVERY HOUR.

    I still think the US intends a war with Syria this year, and Iran perhaps next year. The problem for a NK war is that the Iran war is likely to be a decade-long affair like Afghanistan. Presumably the US doesn’t want to pursue a simultaneous war with Iran and NK.

    In propaganda terms this would be feasible because both countries are claimed to be “in bed with each other” – in fact, it is being claimed that an Iranian official observed the recent NK nuke test. But I wonder if the US electorate could possibly be so vapid as to submit to that level of war at this point.

    Still, as they say, “No one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the American population.”

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