Today, the United States stands on the brink of war — with North Korea. War with North Korea is much more likely than either the administration or the media have indicated. And our coming invasion of Iraq may trigger developments that push us still closer to conflict on the Korean peninsula.
Having been caught red-handed, the North Koreans now openly admit to operating a nuclear-weapons program in violation of the “agreed framework” negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994. The North Koreans have compounded their incitement by kicking out inspectors and restarting plants at Yongbyon that produce and reprocess plutonium. The North Koreans are doing everything in their power (withdrawing from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, threatening to repudiate the Korean war armistice) to create a sense of crisis — all with the object of forcing the United States into negotiations.
At the moment, the U.S. and North Korea are at stalemate. Unwilling to reward North Korea for violating its earlier pledge to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for economic assistance, the United States refuses to negotiate until the Koreans suspend their nuclear program. The Koreans, on the other hand, refuse to close down their nuclear program until the United States promises not to invade, and grants them yet more economic assistance.
This stalemate is unstable. The North Koreans are taking actions that will result in the production of enough plutonium for as many as six nuclear weapons by summer. Once North Korea processes weapons-grade plutonium and removes it from Yongbyon, that plutonium will be effectively hidden from spy satellites, inspectors, and military strikes. At that point, North Korea will be free, not only to construct more nuclear weapons, but to sell weapons-grade nuclear material to al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and anyone else who will pay for it.
Continuation of this situation will be catastrophic for the United States. In the short term, North Korean sales of plutonium would lead to dirty bombs in American cities, rendering sections of Washington or New York uninhabitable for generations. In the medium term, plutonium sales will doubtless lead to full-scale nuclear blasts, set off by terrorists, in American cities. These will kill hundreds of thousands, even millions of Americans. Full-scale nuclear arms proliferation to rogue nations will also lead to yet more nuclear blackmail, of the type being practiced by Korea right now. In effect, America’s conventional military might will be neutralized, and Saddam-like regional adventurers will become a constant threat. In short, if we overthrow Saddam, while still letting North Korea turn itself into a worldwide engine of nuclear proliferation, then we will have lost the war on terror.
There are four possible responses to the current situation in North Korea: allow the current stalemate to continue, impose a set of sanctions designed to bring the regime to heel, negotiate, or go to war. As noted, the present standoff is unstable. In time, North Korean plutonium production will kick off a process of nuclear proliferation to every terrorist group and rogue regime in the world. It is doubtful that president Bush will allow this.
In the absence of negotiations leading to a comprehensive settlement, international sanctions will not be able to prevent the North Koreans from manufacturing and selling plutonium. Punitive sanctions could wear down the regime only gradually. In the meantime, sanctions would bring more of what we’ve already got — North Korean efforts to force negotiations by precipitating a crisis of proliferation.
And the terrible truth is that negotiations, although called for by many Democrats, and by the new South Korean government, are unlikely to work. That is because the North Koreans are almost certain to do what they have already done — take the money and security guarantees we offer them, while secretly continuing to build their nuclear arsenal.
If you want to see what a proposed negotiated solution to the Korean problem looks like, read, “How to Deal With North Korea,” in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. This article, coauthored by James T. Laney (President Clinton’s ambassador to North Korea during the period when the failed “agreed framework” was negotiated) strikes me as pure fantasy. Laney and his coauthor Jason Shaplen envision a comprehensive settlement of the conflict on the Korean peninsula, with security guarantees by China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. The agreement would be verified and enforced by “intrusive and regular inspections.”
Given the difficulty we’ve had in gaining the cooperation of Russia and China in Iraq, the idea that we can rely on them to guarantee security on the Korean peninsula is ridiculous. Of late, American pundits have tried to explain to the Chinese that it is in their own interest to restrain the North Koreans. Supposedly, China’s fear of a nuclear-armed Japan and South Korea, and of reduced trade with the United States, will force it to pressure the North Koreans.
So far, the Chinese give no signs of buying these arguments. They are afraid of revoking their aide from the North Koreans, thus provoking a regime collapse that floods China with refugees. And while the Chinese may not want to face a nuclear Japan or South Korea, they surely understand that these stable and sensible powers are unlikely to launch a nuclear attack. The Chinese can live with rational, capitalist nuclear neighbors a lot more easily than we can live with a nuclear armed North Korea or al Qaeda. If the Chinese are not already urgently banging on our door offering to help control North Korea, then they are unlikely to be sufficiently motivated to be trustworthy partners in the sort of enterprise envisioned by Ambassador Laney.
Worse, the Laney plan relies on exactly the sort of inspections regime that has already proven itself to be a joke in Iraq. We already know that a country that does not wish to cooperate can evade inspections, just as North Korea has already done. The Koreans, in fact, are past masters at hiding even their massive conventional military forces in underground complexes. What hope is there, then, that we can rely on international inspections to keep North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in check? The North Koreans have already proven themselves to be liars. Whoever believes that an agreement will keep them from taking our money, while still selling nuclear fuel to al Oaeda, is a fool. Even if China (on whom the North is totally dependent) should place its weight on the side of an agreement, the Koreans could — and probably would — secretly flout it.
And so we come to the option of war. Yet war with North Korea would be a horror. True, the United States and South Korea would ultimately win. North Korea lacks fuel, and thus staying power, and would immediately cede control of the air to the United States. But in the initial stages, the North would probably kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. They would quickly destroy Seoul with a massive artillery barrage from hardened bunkers, and would at first overrun much of the Korean and American army with a massive land attack. The Department of Defense estimates that a million people would die in a new Korean war, perhaps as many as one hundred thousand of those being Americans (nearly twice the death toll of Vietnam). And while we cannot say for sure that they have perfected missiles that can reach California, or have successfully learned how to place a small-sized nuclear devise atop a missile, the chance of one or two North Korean nuclear missiles launched against the Hawaii, Alaska, or California cannot be excluded.
Were the United States to strike first, the worst-case scenario might be avoidable. We might risk an air raid against North Korea’s nuclear plants, on the bet that the North would not launch an invasion of the South, or a retaliatory nuclear strike on us, knowing that it would ultimately assure its own destruction. Alternatively, we could accompany a raid on the North’s nuclear processing facilities with tactical nuclear strikes against underground troop and artillery emplacements. That might enable us to win the war, while still preventing the worst-case casualty scenarios. But of course, even a tactical nuclear first strike would be an act of extraordinary boldness and controversy.
In last Friday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof reported, based on unnamed sources, that administration hawks are advocating a preemptive strike against North Korea. For now, President Bush has put the Korean matter in the hands of a more dovish State Department. But according to Kristof, that dovish policy may not hold. The very fact that hawkish plans are being leaked to Kristof by worried administration doves is powerful evidence that, on Korea, the hawks are indeed threatening to gain an upper hand.
Meanwhile, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who is surely a confidant of the administration’s hawks, has a piece in the current issue of Forbes that all but calls for war with North Korea. Weinberger argues, persuasively, that North Korea’s past lies make any future promises to destroy its nuclear program unreliable. Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein are two of a kind, says Weinberger. And who can deny it? The fact that former Secretary Weinberger is publicly making this argument is of great interest. (For a more detailed account of the case for war, see Joshua Muravchik’s “Facing Up to North Korea,” in the March 2003 issue of Commentary.)
Up to now, hawks have had an answer to the charge that they apply a double standard to Iraq and North Korea. The hawks point out that we are attacking Saddam Hussein, but not North Korea, precisely because Saddam does not yet have nuclear arms, while North Korea does. We are trying to prevent Saddam from putting us into the same sort of impossible situation that the North Koreans already have. That is a fine answer. Yet it does not go far enough. The sad truth is that we do still face a terrible choice in North Korea, quite like the one we face with Saddam. And as the North Koreans begin to produce plutonium, that choice will be forced. Either we allow ourselves to lose the war on terror by subjecting ourselves to a nuclear-armed al Qaeda, or we place our faith in bogus international guarantees and inspections regimes, or we go to war with North Korea. That war, with a power capable of killing hundreds of thousands of South Koreans — and Americans — may force us to use tactical nuclear weapons.
Our choice will likely grow more acute with an invasion of Iraq. North Korea will probably choose the moment of invasion, when we are least able to launch a war, to begin its plutonium processing.
The nature of our oncoming choice has been hidden from view by the administration’s downplaying of the Korean crisis. Our silence has seemed to ratify our powerlessness, while our refusal to negotiate has seemed to reveal our lack of policy. But if our policy is to strike when we may and must, silence makes a good deal of sense. Another reason for silence is the difference between our own interests and the interests of the South Koreans. Dare we put Seoul at risk in the present, to protect Washington and New York in the future? Perhaps not. Yet surely, by its pleas for a unreliable negotiated settlement that will save Seoul (for now), yet allow plutonium to slip into the hands of al Qaeda, Seoul is risking New York and Washington to protect itself.
It will be said that all of this is the madness of the cowboys running the Bush administration. How else could we have moved from so long a relative peace to the brink of multiple destructive wars? Our nightmare, sadly, is the result of the lethal combination of terror and proliferating weapons of mass destruction, not the actions of the Bush administration. For all our might and technology, the confluence of terror and WMDs has the power to destroy us — if we do not destroy it first.
We are at the beginning, not the end, of a terrible new age. Our army is too small. So is our defense budget. They will get bigger. Even that, unfortunately, will not return us to our accustomed security. We stand today on the brink of a war — with North Korea.
— Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.