I really enjoyed CIA Director George Tenet’s answer before Congress Wenesday to the question of whether or not North Korea has a missile capable of hitting the west coast: “I think the declassified answer is yes.” He thinks? Declassified? Does that mean he thinks the answer is declassified or he thinks the answer is “yes”? And if the declassified answer is “yes,” is the classified answer “no,” or “load up on duct tape?” North Korea reportedly already has a few nuclear weapons and is pursuing greater capabilities. Earlier in the day, the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors adopted a resolution 31-0 with two abstentions declaring North Korea “in noncompliance” with a safeguard agreement under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The report will now go before the U.N. Security Council for discussion.
The U.N. is certainly coming in handy these days. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has not given North Korea an inch. In the old days when the U.N. was dysfunctional, rogue states could count on it being nothing more than a forum for denouncing the U.S. and distributing bribes — which is to say foreign aid. Now the U.N. is behaving more as it was intended to, responding to threats to world peace with something more than declarations of disappointment. The North Koreans have countered with characteristic bellicosity. They still insist, as they have since last fall, that this crisis must only be settled through bilateral talks with the United States, and must result in a nonaggression treaty. I wrote in some detail on this approach when the issue flared last month. The most important reason to keep the U.N. out of the picture, from the North Korean perspective, is to stave off any solution that will compromise their sovereignty and lead to an Iraq-style situation. (And they surely remember October 7, 1950 when the General Assembly authorized U.N. troop movements across the 38th parallel to establish a unified Korea by force.) However, the IAEA move helps the United States make the argument that multilateral action is the best way to approach the crisis.
Yet, there are some obstacles. China’s U.N. ambassador stated that “The only correct and effective approach… is through constructive dialogue and consultations on the basis of equality, especially the sincere and pragmatic dialogue directly among the parties concerned.” This raises the question: Aren’t there many more concerned parties than the United States? Moreover, why should the U.S. have a dialogue based on equality when North Korea is in material breach? Wouldn’t that tend to de-emphasize the fact that one of the two “equals” is an outlaw state? China counters that the situation is does not rise to the level of international threat and only “touches upon regional security and nuclear proliferation,” which is an interesting description of the emergence of a rogue nuclear power in northeast Asia.
There are some signs of movement towards talks. The U.S. approached China to act as intermediary, but the Chinese refused. North Korea approached Britain for the same purpose, and they declined. The EU and Russia are separately trying to set up a U.S.-North Korean dialogue. However, meaningful talks are unlikely until the U.N. either addresses the issue or is blocked from doing so by one of the permanent members of the Security Council. Meanwhile Pyongyang stated that the imposition of sanctions as a response to their nuclear program would be considered a declaration of war.
But getting back to the missile threat — remember the ABM Treaty? Seems like not too long ago it was the law of the land. It was the indispensable centerpiece of arms control, the guarantor of stability, or so its proponents argued. The Soviet Union achieved nuclear dominance while it was operative. And the world saw the greatest nuclear build-down in history 20 years later. By the 1990s, the stability paradigm was under severe strain; reality had passed it by. Yet because the United States had restrained itself from developing the technology necessary to deal with missile threats, the treaty encouraged North Korea to develop weapons like the Taepo Dong II missile, which may be able to hit the west coast. After all, there was not much the U.S. could do to protect itself from such a weapon, and while North Korea would not be able to defeat the United States, it could certainly deter any U.S. president from using force and risking escalation. But since President Bush has dispensed with the ABM Treaty, the U.S. will not remain defenseless for long. Rapid advancements are being made in missile defense; check out for example the airborne laser, which will soon be available to help blunt the bargaining power of countries like North Korea. Might this also account for some of the urgency in the North’s desire to settle the issue? I think the declassified answer is “yes.”
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.