Something Has to be Done about North Korea

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.


15 Comments on “Something Has to be Done about North Korea”

  1. Denis says:

    If one looks at the pretty well established collaboration between IRI and NoKo, the problem must be defined not so much as one or the other, but as both. I mean, why all the babel about IRI’s break out time when NoKo will supply them with what they want, when they want it. It brings to mind the secret collaboration between GoI and S.Africa. I am less concerned about NoKo’s ability to deliver missiles from subs than I am about their ability to deliver bomb grade uranium by subs — essentially a Papa John’s model of nuclear collaboration.

    Bush misstated the axis as being one of evil. A more precise view might be “axis of enrichment,” sans Saddam, of course. But NoKo is not in the way of GoI’s zionist program and it doesn’t have an effect on USG’s oil needs. As long as your surveillance and preemptive strike gear are in order, then there is probably more short-term motivation to neutralize IRI than NoKo, especially if you’re a US senator with a pocket full of shekels.

    But from a rational/moral perspective, I have never understood what right (other than might) the US or GoI or UK or any nuclear armed country has telling any sovereign government what they can and can’t do in terms of developing/building/deploying nukes. Every country has a right to defend itself, and as long as nukes are extant, then equity would suggest that every country has a right to plug into the deterrence paradigm. Obama’s record is hardly one of gaining moral ground on this front.

    I probably sound like A.Q. Kahn, but I’m not advocating nuclear expansion, I’m arguing that those who want to constrain others’ nuclear activity should first eliminate the foul smell in their own nests.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      Hi Denis,
      I’m very much in agreement with the spirit of your point about the hypocrisy of nuclear armed states moralizing with others about possession of nuclear weapons. It absolutely infects alot of the debate surrounding Iran’s and others’ nuclear programs. And I’ll admit that when I write about North Korea, I feel uncomfortable because I’m not generally a “let’s go bomb them” kind of guy. I was opposed to the 2003 Iraq war from the very beginning, and I’ve been opposed to military action against Iran. North Korea has just always been in a different category in my mind, and I think it comes down to what I said above about what I perceive as their irrational behavior and worldview, which makes me much more nervous about them than I am about pretty much any other nuclear weapons possessing state. That’s really at the core of why I make the sort of distinction I do, treating North Korea as a special case that I think needs to be dealt with much more aggressively than other cases.

      • Denis says:

        It is very significant that since you published this post the USG, particularly Kerry, has increased its rhetoric on NoKo. I think this tells us the Obama folks are monitoring this blog day-by-day and have you plugged into the Policy Dept.

        Seriously tho’, maybe you saw today’s piece by Bruce Klingner, who also seems to be tracking what you say.

        I’m not sure I can comprehend your disbelief in an Iran-NoKo nexus. Surely we’re on the same planet. Hasn’t the connection been discussed a number of times on this blog and by the Wonks? By the NYT? By the WaPo? Have I been dreaming the last 20 years? Wasn’t that the crux of two parts of the Axis of Evil rhetoric. And now you’re sayin’ “Aint so.” ???

        Did you miss the story about the Bangkok Bust where a Christmas present of arms from NoKo to IRI was intercepted in Thailand in Dec2009?

        IRI has been getting arms, parts, and training from NoKo since the early 1980’s, who do you think is keeping NoKo (barely) afloat? Santa Claus? As one example, I note that IRI’s Shahab-3 is a re-designed NoKo No Dong. When IRI put the Omid satellite in orbit, the first stage was also a No Dong copy. I could go on, but I shouldn’t have to. The IRI-NoKo arms connection is too well documented for me to spend a lot of time reviewing it for you.

        And what part is it about the nukes delivered by sub scenario I suggested you are so incredulous about — that NoKo has subs or that NoKo has nukes?

        As an analogy for the IRI-NoKo nuke arrangement I speculated on, think: Pakistan-Saudi Arabia. Last week’s Sunday Times included a leak by the Obama people that the Saudis are calling in their debt for off-the-shelf nukes from Pakistan. The Saudis bankrolled A.Q. so that they would have access to nukes when they needed them while being, technically, nuke-free.

        Sure, IRI will sign a treaty to limit enrichment and increase transparency — they know where they can get the hi-grade U or nukes they might need without producing them themselves. That’s speculation, but I’m certainly not alone.

    • Cyrus says:

      What “well established” collaboration, precisely? When we start talking about delivering ‘bomb-grade enriched uranium by subs’ we’re in a Hollywood script. If Iran wanted bombs, it would not need N Korea.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      Thanks Denis. I wish I had that much influence over anybody in DC. But I have also noticed an uptick lately in attention to NK, which I think is good.

  2. Nick Ritchie says:

    Dan, your post raises some interesting questions and I’ll throw in a couple of points/questions in response: 1) After 2 decades’ effort and different strategies the US has fallen back to active containment under Obama based on his reading of the limited capacity for US power to effect lasting change in NoKo without precipitating calamity and potentially decades-long commitment to development and integration with SoKo following the necessary eradication of the Kim dynasty; 2) Security relationships with SoKo and Japan have been stabilised (contra US security relations with key allies in the Middle East); 3) there appears to be acknowledgement that sustained Chinese pressure will be necessary to categorically change the path of NoKo nuclear development but NoKo is not, currently, top of the list of the US-China strategic dialogue agenda (there’s no such regional hegemon in the Middle East to match the US offshore role and Iran tops the regional security agenda); 4) coercive diplomacy has the potential to work with Iran (as was the case with Libya and Iraq with UNSCOM and UNMOVIC) because the threat of a comprehensive violent US response to diplomatic resistance has some credibility (evidenced in Iraq in 2003) which is currently lacking in NoKo given perceived interests at stake. In short, the game isn’t worth the candle, at least for now. What could/will change all this is the next act of NoKo aggression against SoKo to which Seoul responds forcefully (as promised after the Cheonan) risking rapid escalation and an opportunity for the US to pre-empt NoKo WMD use through massive aerial bombardment to terminate the regime (akin to the opportunity opened up for the neocons by 9/11 to finally be rid of Saddam). As demonstrable NoKo nuclear capability increases, the political incentives and clamour for seizing a geopolitical opportunity precipitated by NoKo actions could become intense enough for a hawkish White House to act pre-emptively as a least worst option in the context of violent crisis. Until then, evolution not revolution of the security environment will continue. The US and others in the region have learned to live with a nuclear-armed NoKo for the best part of two decades and will continue to do so, worrying as that may be.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      Hi Nick,
      Thanks very much for this very thoughtful and instructive comment. Your analysis makes alot of sense to me in explaining why the Obama administration has adopted the policy they have.

      I’m not sure it explains the lack of attention to the issue from Congress and the arms control wonk community, though. I just did a very unscientific look around the major nonproliferation think tank websites, and North Korea is seldom the subject of serious pieces of analysis. There certainly doesn’t seem to be a sense of importance and urgency about the case, in the way that there most certainly is about the Iran case. This, again, is what is enigmatic to me. Although, with the wonk community it’s certainly true that they generally take their cue from the administration, so the fact that they are following the administration’s line and priorities shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, I guess.

      Maybe I’m taking the North Korean nuclear threat too seriously. Maybe there is a general unspoken consensus that in time either the country will simply implode organically, bringing about a problem on it’s doorstep that China can’t ignore, or that for all their bluster the Kim’s do not actually have the resolve to go through with any of their threats. It’s just difficult for me to see what I perceive as a truly unpredictable regime advancing their nuclear and missile capabilities day by day.

      • Nick Ritchie says:

        A quick reply with two further points: first one has to ask what purpose it would serve to take the North Korean threat ‘more seriously’ in a more proactive and determined way when the policy opportunities and payoffs are decidedly slim and when Iran is occupying the vast majority of political attention and capital in DC in the category of nuclear armed, or potentially nuclear armed, ‘rogue state’. I’m sure if a crisis emerged on the peninsula Washington’s attention would quickly shift, but why risk precipitating a crisis through a more proactive policy when the negotiations with Iran are so controversial and so promising? Second, it does raise an interesting question of trends and fads in the collective attention of the U.S. non-proliferation complex as you and others have labelled it, the practices that shape political and institutional agendas, and the interests in play in these processes. A comparison could perhaps be made with critiques of the international aid complex that jumps from humanitarian crisis to humanitarian crisis sweeping in with external expertise and resources before quickly moving on to the next without addressing underlying causes.

  3. FlamesInTheDesert says:

    Its funny but if you substituted “iran” for “north korea” in your article one could be forgiven for thinking that you were one of those war mongering republicans/neocons/zionists who think that the only way to stop irans nuclear program and thus make the region safe for those very same people is to attack iran,except what you are in effect proposing is an attack on a nuclear armed state which to me and probably a whole lot of other people is at the top of the list of the most incredibly stupidly dangerous things you could even contemplate much less actually attempt.

  4. Dan Joyner says:

    Just noticed that this Reuters piece by Sharon Squassoni came out yesterday as well:

    This is the kind of urgency it seems to me there should be more of. As she says: “Although no one should be sanguine about success, it is time to put North Korea back on the front burner of nuclear diplomacy.”

  5. Cyrus says:

    I have to say that it speaks volumes about our lowered expectations of our journalists when Sanger’s misrepresentation of the Iran nuclear issue here is called “pretty good”. Iran did not “stonewall” the IAEA about allegations about past nuclear weapons design work as Sanger states. Rather Iran submitted a 115-page analysis of the allegations, which it was never allowed to see in full despite the explicit requirement of the Modalities Agreement. The idea that Iran stonewalled the IAEA on these allegations is one of the standard bits of propaganda that is becoming truth merely through repetition by complicit journalists like Sanger, and as such should be challenged every time it is repeated.

    In fact after years of shopping the allegations around, it was only in February 2008 (when the Modalities deal gave Iran a clean bill of health on past enrichment activities) that the U.S. gave the IAEA permission to show any of the documents to Iran to enable it to respond (IAEA Gov/2008/4 at paragraph 37). Even then it provided “much of this information [to the IAEA] only in electronic form” and “not authorizing the [IAEA] to provide copies to Iran” (IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 16). The IAEA itself didn’t even have full access to the documents that it demanded Iran somehow refute.

    So who was stonewalling whom, precisely?

  6. Johnboy says:

    Personally, I suspect that the simplest explanation is likely to be correct.

    As in: the USA isn’t particularly fussed about *any* country having nukes of *any* kind, nor is the USA particularly frightened by *any* nuclear sabre-rattling by *anyone*.

    The USA is The Big Dawg, it knows that it’s The Big Dawg, and it knows that everyone else knows that too, so it isn’t all that fussed when a poodle starts yap, yap, yapping in its direction.

    So the USA’s conspicuous lack of reaction to North Korean nukes is, perhaps, the norm and not the puzzling omission.

    The USA just doesn’t care about North Korean nukes, in the same way that it doesn’t really care about Pakistani nukes, or about Indian nukes, or whatever.

    And, in truth, the USA probably doesn’t care about Iran’s “possible military dimensions” either – it just considers it to be good politics to pretend to be concerned.

    So it plays pretendies with Iran’s pretend-nukes because… well…. because Israel goes ape-shit if Uncle Sam doesn’t show Concern Bordering Upon Paranoia.

    I mean, look at the latest news coming out of Israel: all the newspapers are breathlessly reporting on the “compensation” that Obama is offering to Israel in the form of extra (and free) F-35 fighters and missile defences.

    Whaaaaat? What did Israel do to earn that “compensation”?

    The answer is “nothing”, but as far as Obama is concerned handing over $billions worth of hardware is worth it if it just shuts ’em up.

    And going through all this farce of sanctions and threats-on-the-table and verballing Iran about PMD’s is also worth it, if only – if only! – it would shut ’em up.

    After all: the USA burnt through $Trillions to take out Saddam Hussein, so what’s a cool coupla’ $Billion and years and years of coercive diplomacy between friends?

    If it shuts the Israelis up then that’s a bill worth paying.

    Cynical, I know. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

  7. John says:

    Dan, I can’t believe you are talking now like neo-cons who were so anxious to attack Iraq preemptively that they even manufactured false stories about WMDs in that country in 2002.

    It seems we never really learn anything from our past mistakes. This is very sad.
    You are supposed to uphold the rule of law and international law,in particular, as a
    law professor, but you are now preaching a preemptive strike against a nuclear state,
    which will not only re-ignite the horrendous Korean War but also undermine the fragile
    international law system as it now stands at present.

    You are showing a lot of misconceptions or misunderstandings about N. Korea.
    1) N. Korea is not really the one threatening U.S. In fact, it is the opposite. It has been
    Uncle Sam that have been threatening N. Korea in the past by increasing joint war drills with
    Japan, S. Korea and Australia, along with tougher economic sanctions from 1950.
    2) N. Korea acquired nuclear weapons in apparent response to U.S. nuclear threats only
    in 2005, after what U.S. did on Iraq. Do you know that Bush administration nuclear
    policy contemplated a preemptive nuclear strike against N. Korea in 2002?
    3) As for good faith and keeping promises, it was, in fact, Uncle Sam who
    broke first most of the deals we reached with N. Korea–not the other way.
    (e.g. see Leon V. Sigal’s book and articles)

    Finally, anticipatory preemptive attack, although justified under the Bush administration,
    would be in violation of the UN Charter, if carried out. I am amazed how you can talk about this as if it is a good law? Perhaps, you worked under the Bush administration?

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