What is Seriously to be Done about North Korea’s Linear Progression Toward Nuclear Weapons Delivery Capability?!?!?!?!Posted: April 26, 2016
Every few months we hear a new claim – and the inevitable follow-up discussions about the believability of that claim – regarding how far North Korea has come in developing a nuclear warhead that can be miniaturized and fitted onto one of their increasingly long-range missiles, and thus used to threaten its regional neighbors, or even the continental United States. The particulars of just where they are right now are less concerning to me than what appears to be a fairly linear progression of advancement in their capabilities, which again appears to make it only a matter of time – and here it seems realistic to talk of months or at the most a handful of years – before they achieve the ability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear tipped missile. And what’s really concerning is that TO THIS DAY I still haven’t heard anyone with a particularly good plan to stop this from happening.
There’s lots of talk of more sanctions, and of returning to negotiations. A good bit of talk about offering greater incentives. Of course all of these things have been tried before with North Korea and don’t seem to have made much of a difference in the trajectory of their progress toward a missile-deliverable nuclear weapon.
Then there’s the idea that at some point China will get tired of tolerating and protecting the increasingly defiant NK leadership and will do . . . something . . . about it. I wish that would happen, but there seems to be an awful lot of guessing and assumptions that go into that reliance, which don’t pat down the concern very much.
I come back to this subject at intervals here at ACL. Some previous posts are here, here, here, and here. I try to stay up to date on at least some of the leading writing on what to do about the North Korean threat. And it just baffles me that there isn’t a concrete plan for stopping the emergence of this capability by North Korea.
In my previous posts I’ve tried to head off any comparison between the North Korean case and the Iran case, on which I’m well known to have taken a different tack entirely. I don’t want to go back through the distinctions again here. If you’re serious, you know what they are.
And again, as I’ve also said before, I’ll put my general non-interventionist bona fides up against anyone’s and expect to come out favorably in the comparison. I am absolutely not some hawk that looks automatically to military force to solve WMD proliferation problems. Quite the opposite.
But sometimes there literally is no other practical option, and the threat is real and credible. And in those circumstances I’ve always been willing to afford states facing the imminent threat of use of nuclear weapons against them, the right to strike in an anticipatory fashion to defeat the threat. This is in my view within the right of self defense accorded to states under international law. Debates about what imminence means in this context are rich, sophisticated and nuanced. But at some point, I think states do have a right to preemptively use military force to degrade threats of use of nuclear weapons against them.
Like so much in international use of force law, practical legality will essentially depend on whether states generally are satisfied that a use of force was reasonable, necessary and proportionate to an intolerable threat, and that all reasonable peaceful means to avoid using military force had been exhausted. For example, Israeli threats to use military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities never met these tests of satisfaction. But I think that at some point, a preemptive military strike by the U.S. Against North Korea would.
Is the U.S. at that point yet with North Korea? I don’t think so. But when will we be? I’d give it months or at the most a handful of years.
I don’t know anyone in the right agencies of the U.S. government to check (not that they’d tell me even if I did) but I’m sure that plans for just such a military contingency are well maintained, they just aren’t spoken about publicly.
I suspect this is, in the end, the concrete plan for stopping North Korea’s nuclear threat to it’s neighbors and to the U.S. It’s just not part of what U.S. officials are ready to talk about yet. I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to this, and that something will change to make it unnecessary.
But if not, I’d rather see this than live with a North Korea capable of launching a nuclear first strike against the United States.
UPDATE: Here’s a link to an article I wrote in 2008 on use of force law in the context of WMD proliferation. I’ve referenced it a couple of times in the comments to this post, and I wanted to make it available to those interested: