An ASIL Insight I wrote on the case brought by Marshall Islands against the nuclear weapons states before the International Court of Justice has just been published online (to read it, click here). Comments are welcome.
It’s time once again to note, as I periodically do, that while massive amounts of time and effort are being spent on a deal between the P5+1 and Iran – a country that has never possessed nuclear weapons – there is a country that not only possesses a well-known and reportedly expanding nuclear weapons arsenal, but that is in fact governed by paranoid lunatics who overtly threaten not only their neighbors but also the United States directly. Yes, I’m talking about North Korea.
This new NYT article by David Sanger does a good job of giving the most recent information about developments with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, and also of distinguishing between the Iran case and the North Korea case.
I guess I’m just struck once again by how little uproar I hear about North Korea and the nuclear weapons threat it poses both to the region and to the U.S., coming from the U.S. government. The NYT article describes America’s current strategy toward North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as:
“strategic patience,” which essentially meant continuing pressure through sanctions and other levers until North Korea decided to negotiate.
This seems like a stupid idea to me. As I’ve written before, I’m well aware of all of the complexities of “doing something” about the North Korean nuclear arsenal, but it seems to me that something more needs to be done than just watch it grow bigger and more advanced and more capable of being used against states both in the region and across the Pacific.
So where is the uproar in Congress and in the U.S. administration about this very real and existent threat? Where are all the talking heads and D.C. nonproliferation think tanks proposing ten-step plans for actually addressing the North Korean nuclear arsenal? Where are the bombastic statements from Congressional Republicans threatening to annihilate North Korea if they even think about using nuclear weapons against us or our allies? I’m not saying that none of these are ever produced, but it’s the lack of density and volume that is quizzical to me, particularly in comparison to what has been produced regarding Iran. It’s true that there is no Israel in this situation to play the role of chief voice of warning and rallying cause for U.S. politicians. But again, North Korea is an actual threat to the U.S., and I would hope that that would be enough to get the serious juices flowing in DC to come up with a better plan than “strategic patience.”
As I’ve said before, I see diplomatic negotiations and deal-making between Iran and its detractors as being well worth pursuing, because I see Iran as an essentially rational actor that is highly likely to follow through on any agreement it reaches with the West. But I have absolutely zero confidence that North Korea will act in good faith toward promises it makes in diplomatic settings. I think the uselessness of diplomatic approaches with North Korea has been well demonstrated. And I think that whatever rationality North Korea’s leaders may possess is so warped by ideology, paranoia and self-preservation that it cannot be relied upon by other states to keep North Korea from undertaking aggressive actions, possibly even including the use of nuclear weapons, against its neighbors and the U.S.
We’re well beyond arms control law with North Korea. North Korea’s leaders are demonstrably not amenable to civilized relations, either with their own civilian population or with other states, under the regulation of international law.
As I’ve written previously, I do not want to live in a world in which North Korea has nuclear weapons deliverable at its psychotic whim against its neighbors and against the U.S. Where, then, is the “red line”? Where is the point at which it will be necessary for the U.S. and South Korea to take the extreme step of preemptively attacking North Korea? I don’t know, but I think it’s coming soon. And if/when it does, I think it will be both legal under international law, and morally justifiable. While of course the principles of the jus in bello would have to additionally be met (most importantly proportionality and discrimination), I think North Korea presents the strongest case we have ever seen for the satisfaction of the criteria for anticipatory self-defense in the jus ad bellum. In this case I unfortunately see few other realistic options.