Politics & Policy

An Ominous Cloud

North Korea is not going away.

Although all eyes are currently on the general Baghdad area, we are also on a course for war with North Korea, perhaps within the next six months, but surely within the next six years. Proposals for negotiations, whether multilateral or bilateral, are fatally flawed. Nothing short of war will stop the North Koreans from developing and selling nuclear weapons and fuel. The question is whether we will go to war before, or after, North Korea spreads its nuclear material. A case can be made for holding war off until we are struck first, even if by nuclear terrorism. But that is our fundamental choice — war before nuclear proliferation, or after.

Since I put forth this pessimistic view in two earlier pieces, “The Other Imminent Danger,” and “It’s All About North Korea,” some important defenses of bilateral and multilateral negotiation strategies with North Korea have been published. I’ll explain in a moment why either multilateral or bilateral negotiations are likely to fail. But first, consider a more immediate question. With our military tied down in Iraq, will North Korea start to reprocess the spent fuel rods at Yongbyon into weapons grade plutonium?


If North Korea begins to reprocess the spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, it will have crossed a fearful line. Reprocessing will yield enough plutonium to produce a bomb a month. More important, once the plutonium has been removed from Yongbyon and transferred to North Korea’s vast network of subterranean military bases, it will be invisible to spy satellites, and hidden from the gaze of inspectors. At that point, the North Koreans will be free to sell plutonium (or full-fledged nuclear bombs) with impunity. Since even a single nuclear bomb in the hands of terrorists means the end of an American city, the United States may be forced to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on North Korea. In the absence of war (or a successful negotiating process), we shall have to stand by as North Korea becomes an engine of nuclear proliferation to every terrorist group and rogue nation in the world.

But will they do it? Will the North Koreans risk a war with the United States by operating the reprocessing plant at Yongbyon? They certainly might. Since, whatever we say publicly, our military is too small to fight simultaneous wars on two fronts, the North Koreans may well use our invasion of Iraq as an opportunity to add to their small nuclear arsenal. That will increase North Korea’s deterrent power over the United States, and strengthen their bargaining position in any future negotiations. And of course, by selling plutonium to terrorists, the North Koreans have the power to threaten the existence and stability of American society, something they might consider to be in their interest.

On the other hand, the North may decide not to start up Yongbyon. Knowing that plutonium manufacture might provoke a war (instead of simply forcing the United States into negotiations), the North may consider reprocessing too risky. That may explain why the North Koreans have been desperately trying to provoke a crisis by other means — test firing missiles, withdrawing from treaties, attempting to take American flyers hostage, even threatening nuclear war. The North Koreans have tried to stampede us into deceptive and disadvantageous bilateral negotiations by doing everything — except the one thing that might truly get them in trouble. We’ll soon see if, by reprocessing plutonium at Yongbyon, the North Koreans dare risk setting off a chain of events that could swiftly lead either to negotiations — or to war.


But let’s step back for a moment. What are the North Koreans really after? Are they practicing nuclear brinkmanship and blackmail simply as a way of extorting financial aid and security guarantees from the West, or has Kim Jong Il made a fundamental decision that nuclear weapons are essential to the survival of his regime? The answer to this question matters tremendously. That’s because, if North Korea is truly determined to possess a nuclear deterrent to American attack, then no negotiations process — be it bilateral or multilateral — is likely to succeed.

I believe that Kim Jong Il has decided that the survival of his regime depends upon the possession of nuclear weapons. Such a decision by the North Koreans would be entirely rational. The North Koreans have no real allies. Their regime is regarded as bizarre, untrustworthy, and fearsome, even by the Chinese. Kim Jong Il understands that the world would like to be rid of him. He also knows that, post-9/11, the United States is especially interested in putting an end to his regime. Given that, Kim has every reason to conclude that the only certain way to deter the United States and its potential allies is through the possession of nuclear weapons.

It is true, of course, that the very possession of nuclear weapons is what makes the North Korean regime anathema to the United States. So why not disarm and survive? That might sound reasonable, but the North Korean regime has consistently chosen the path of militarization, deception, blackmail, and brinkmanship. That is how they operate. North Korea is starving because Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, subordinated all else to militarization (and to the hope of reunifying Korea on the North’s terms). It would literally take a cultural revolution to convince the North Koreans that risking nuclear disarmament was a surer route to regime safety than further militarization.

And given North Korea’s isolation, possession of a nuclear deterrent may be the only realistic path to regime survival. Put yourself in the place of Kim Jong Il. Would you feel safe knowing you were years away from reconstituting your nuclear weapons program? Would you trust the United States to harmlessly funnel massive economic aid to your now denuclearized state, or would you fear covert or overt American steps to destabilize and destroy your now denuclearized regime before you had a chance to change your mind and rearm?

True, even after full nuclear disarmament, North Korea would retain a massive deterrent — the capacity to destroy nearby Seoul with a conventional artillery barrage, not to mention an invasion. But if you were in Kim’s shoes, wouldn’t you still be concerned about external attack, and especially internal subversion, by a United States that no longer feared direct nuclear retaliation. Kim Jong Il was not raised by Kim Il Sung to place his regime in so shaky a position.


Let us say that North Korea has made a fundamental decision to possess a nuclear deterrent, no matter what. Does that mean we can’t force them to change their minds? If we assemble a coalition of allied states (especially China) who are willing to cut off North Korea economically unless it disarms, can’t we force Kim Jong Il to buckle? If we make the regime face up to its own imminent economic strangulation, can’t we change the rational calculus of regime survival?

That is what the administration hopes. In reality, it is highly unlikely that China and other nations will do what needs to be done to bring the North Koreans to heel. For the sake of argument, however, let us say we succeed in assembling a multilateral coalition that imposes extremely tough economic sanctions on North Korea. And let’s say the North Koreans agree to disarm. At that point, the second fundamental obstacle to a negotiated settlement emerges — verification.

It is simply not possible to craft a credible nuclear inspections regime that the North Koreans would accept. This is proven by “Off Target,” Michael Levi’s story in the March 24, 2003 issue of The New Republic. Levi’s article purports to show the impossibility of a military solution to the Korean crisis. According to Levi, a preemptive strike at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facilities won’t work — because North Korea already has clandestine nuclear facilities that are impossible for the United States to find. But Levi’s argument does not show that negotiations are the only solution. On the contrary, Levi’s piece actually proves that negotiations cannot possibly work.

We already know that there is more to North Korea’s nuclear program than the Yongbyon plutonium reprocessing facility. Yongbyon had been locked and monitored under the 1994 “agreed framework.” But only recently, that framework fell apart when the United States confronted the North Koreans with evidence of an illicit uranium program. The North Koreans admitted that they’d cheated, but we still don’t know where their uranium plant is. As Levi points out in TNR, it was evidence of equipment purchases, not satellite imagery, that exposed North Korean cheating.

Levi makes it clear that the North Koreans could easily be hiding several nearly undetectable uranium and/or plutonium processing facilities in their vast network of underground installations. And their clandestine uranium plant (or some other secret plant) may be only months away from being able to manufacture weapons grade material. What all this says to Levi is that bombing Yongbyon would be useless. That may be true. But North Korea’s capacity to hide its nuclear facilities also shows that negotiations will be useless. There is simply no reliable way, short of regime change, to be sure that the North Koreans will not cheat on a new agreement, just as they cheated on the “agreed framework.”

In a long and thoughtful editorial in the same issue as Levi’s story, The New Republic argues for bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans. But this time, says TNR, in contrast to the “agreed framework,” the United States cannot exclude any part of Korea from inspection. On the contrary, TNR insists that an agreement must allow inspectors access to any site they consider suspect. But as Levi’s TNR’s story points out, we haven’t got a clue about where most of North Korea’s suspect nuclear facilities actually are. So the only way to reliably verify an agreement would be to give American inspectors carte blanche to roam North Korea, including its network of secret military facilities.

Of course, the notion that Kim Jong Il would ever permit free roving inspections is a joke. It’s often said that genuinely free, comprehensive, and intrusive inspections in Iraq would so change the nature of the regime that they would effectively topple Saddam Hussein. The same is true for Korea. So given North Korea’s ability to hide its nuclear facilities, and given our need for total and verifiable nuclear disarmament, the only real option is regime change.

Levi’s article tells a remarkable story about the creation of the 1994 “agreed framework.” It seems that the Clinton administration was divided on the nature of the enforcement mechanism. Despite the difficulty of detecting underground uranium and plutonium processing facilities, we might at least have had a hope of discovering secret plutonium plants by placing about a dozen krypton-85 detectors throughout North Korea. But insisting on a battery of krypton -85 detectors was deemed to be “intrusive verification,” “too offensive” to the North Koreans to demand. Obviously, not demanding such “intrusive verification” was a terrible mistake.

More important, the Clinton administration’s error might soon be repeated. In effect, by offering the North Koreans an agreement that could easily be cheated on, the Clinton administration fooled itself into believing it had averted war. By refusing to ask the North Koreans for the sort of inspections that might plausibly have worked (although the krypton-85 detectors were not foolproof, and in any case would have sniffed out only plutonium, not uranium), the Clinton administration chose not to risk a refusal by the North that would have led to war. Today, to avert a horrible war, The New Republic proposes that we settle for an agreement that, by TNR’s own account (i.e. the Levi story), has to be regarded as unverifiable. (How much less horrible would a war have been, by the way, had it been fought in 1993, before the North Koreans had two nuclear weapons, advanced missiles, and as massive an artillery position above Seoul?)

So now we must face the terrible truth. Although they may take a calculated risk and create a crisis at Yongbyon meant to force us into a deceptive and disadvantageous round of bilateral negotiations, the North Koreans don’t really need to set Yongbyon in motion. They can simply go on provoking us without Yongbyon, while continuing to produce weapons grade uranium (and possibly plutonium) at their clandestine plants. The North Koreans may negotiate, but they will never agree to the sort of inspections that would allow us to detect their every secret plant. And the North Koreans can actually use the peace guaranteed by a protracted negotiation process to finish their clandestine uranium enrichment and begin their sales to al Qaeda. For the North Koreans, negotiations are entirely compatible — and have always been compatible — with retaining the nuclear deterrent they are determined to possess.

So Rubicon has been crossed. The plutonium at Yongbyon might as well have already been produced, hidden, and sold — because the North’s clandestine nuclear fuel plant(s) are already at work. The only reasonable assumption is that the worst is happening right now, or will happen shortly. Even if Yongbyon stays quiet, the North Koreans will shortly be selling nuclear fuel manufactured in their clandestine plant(s) to al Qaeda. We won’t see it, but it’s going to happen. And short of regime change, there is no way to stop it.

Does that mean we must strike at North Korea as soon as possible? Not necessarily. (I’ll come back to that critical question in a future piece.) But the hard truth is, the very nature of the North Korean regime’s security dilemma, combined with the impossibility of crafting a verifiable agreement, means that, one way or another, we are probably headed for war.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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