Monday, October 09, 2006

North Korea and the bomb

Reports are coming out tonight that North Korea has performed its first ever nuclear weapons test. As of this writing it is unclear what action other nations will take in response.

Last week, the Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs said, "We are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea, we are not going to accept it," adding that the Pyongyang regime "can have a future or it can have these weapons—it cannot have both."

That’s tough talk but the U.S. options are limited with U.S. military forces stretched thin as it is with commitments in the Middle East. The key player in dealing with North Korea will be China and despite their expressions of unhappiness with the North Korean nuclear testing it is unclear what, if any, effective means they are willing take to deal with it.

Fred Kaplan in Slate on Friday:

If North Korea explodes a bomb, President Bush and like-minded powers could
be expected to pressure financial institutions to boycott all North Korean
transactions. He could also mount a blockade of all ships going into and out of
North Korea's ports. He wouldn't call it a "blockade" (which international law
describes as an act of war), but he would—and legally could—take the action
under the Proliferation Security Initiative, declaring that all ships are
suspected of carrying nuclear materials. He could also order inspections of all
North Korean aircraft landing in other countries. And he could call for U.N.

But it all comes down to what the Chinese do. China, of course, has
veto power in the Security Council. And most of North Korea's trade and traffic
runs through China. Without Chinese aid, mainly in food and fuel, Kim's regime
couldn't survive for long. Yet if the regime collapsed, millions of North Korean
refugees would flood the Chinese border, prompting a catastrophe that Beijing
wants to avoid for economic and security reasons. Kim's demise would also alter
the military balance in East Asia. More than 30,000 U.S. troops currently holed
up in South Korea to deter a North Korean invasion would be freed up and
possibly deployed to bolster Taiwan's resistance to mainland pressures.

It is very likely, in other words, that China's rulers don't want to
take any action that risks North Korea's survival—that they value national
security and their own view of regional stability more than they value the
principle of nuclear nonproliferation. (By the way, America's leaders do, too;
hence the special allowances they make for the nuclear programs of India,
Pakistan, and Israel.) If this analysis is mistaken, if China comes down hard on
Kim after he sets off a nuclear bomb, then the Democratic People's Republic of
Korea is in deep trouble. However, if Kim does explode a bomb, he will have
calculated that China won't come down hard, that he can get away with going
nuclear—and he may be right.

Bush, meanwhile, doesn't have any good military options to execute. The
Joint Chiefs of Staff have trotted out the war plans for North Korea during
previous crises, most recently in 2003, and everyone in attendance concluded
that the risks were too great. Kim Jong-il's army has thousands of artillery
pieces near the border, many within 50 miles of Seoul; a U.S. airstrike couldn't
get them all in the first wave; a retaliatory strike could kill hundreds of
thousands of South Koreans. As for toppling Kim through invasion, the North
Korean army is weak and poorly supplied, but it's also huge (1 million men); the
U.S. Army doesn't have many spare troops at the moment, and the terrain from the DMZ to Pyongyang, in any event, is prohibitively rough.

North Korea's own interests in getting a bomb are clear, and they have
little to do with the fact that its leader is a bit of a flake. Kim's diplomats
have clearly said for years that they learned a lesson from the wars in Iraq
(those of 1991 and 2003): If you want to keep America from attacking, get some
nuclear weapons. They also learned much from Pakistan's nuclear test in 1998,
after which the country was transformed in American eyes from "outlaw state" to
"strategic partner." In other words, Kim may think that he can wait out the

Kim Jong-il has developed his nuclear program in slow motion. After the
1994 Agreed Framework broke down at the end of 2002, he unlocked the fuel rods at his nuclear reactor and shipped them to a reprocessing plant. Not until
February 2005 did he announce that he'd manufactured a nuclear weapon. Now, 20 months later, he proclaims that he'll test a bomb—and, even then, says he'll do
so only "in the future."

All along it has seemed obvious to many intelligence analysts, State
Department officials, and outside specialists that the North Koreans were using
the nukes as bargaining chips, putting them on the table, hoping to cash them in
for a deal similar to the '94 Agreed Framework—disarmament in exchange for aid,
energy, security guarantees, and an accord to establish diplomatic relations and
end the 1950 Korean War. (The fighting stopped in '53, but there never was a
peace treaty; we are technically still at war.)

The Bush administration, from the outset, has resisted negotiations, on
the principle that we should defeat evil, not negotiate with it—a fine moral
point, except that we can't do much to defeat this particular evil, and it might
be more moral still to keep evil from going nuclear.

In the coming weeks, the Bush administration will—and should—do all it can to rally the regional powers, including China, to hold firm on threatening Kim Jong-il with severe economic penalties if he goes ahead with a nuclear test. This campaign would not be weakened—it might, in fact, be made more credible—if word went out to Pyongyang, even a backstage whisper, that there is a way out of this hole, that a deal is still possible. If Bush doesn't offer an exit strategy, or if Kim doesn't want to take it, the already frightening world is going to get scarier

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