- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

Nobody complains when the U.S. or British navies fire a Trident intercontinental missile at the Eastern Test Range off the Florida coast, as a Demonstration And Shakedown Operation. And this is a nuclear-armed, operationally-deployed missile that has been both explicitly targeted at other nations with nuclear weapons and implicitly targeted at states without nuclear weapons (e.g. “no options are off the table” for Iran).

So why all the fuss when North Korea tests its missiles? The West is understandably irked by its use of missile and nuclear related activities as diplomatic bargaining chips to extort economic aid. But before Washington panics, it should remember that Pyongyang has few alternatives.

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) has faced severe economic crisis for two decades and its embryonic attempts at economic reform as part of Kim Jong-il’s Sunshine Policy, modeled after and intermittently encouraged by China, have done little to address the crisis. Instead, matters continue to worsen.

The Stalinist command economy and the personality cult of the “Dear Leader” are not good foundations for a free market — hyperinflation, caused by an emerging tolerance of smuggling and private enterprise, has made life more difficult for the already starving people of the DPRK, who might look back at the previous rationing with fondness.

The North Korean situation is often characterized as intractable. It may be true that there is no ideal answer, but a failure to identify a solution seems to be a failure of willingness to address the fundamental problems and a failure of imagination to envision a successful future.

When it comes to conceiving a North Korean solution, the West — led by the United States — is more worried about the means than the ends. It does not want to be seen rewarding the bully tactics of Pyongyang — nuclear extortion. Nor does it want to support a communist state with a rogue regime.

But what futures can we envision for a peaceful outcome? What are the red lines that Pyongyang and the international community won’t cross? For Pyongyang, regime survival is key. It is also likely that Oriental traditions of saving face and Kim Jong-il’s principle of Juche (self-sufficiency) — the country’s official ideology (or political religion) — would play a big part in securing a long-term peace.

The West might like to see regime change and democracy. And in the absence of revolution will push for nuclear disarmament. Many would see reunification with South Korea in a democratic Korea as an ideal outcome. But there seems no room for a negotiated compromise as things stand today.

Can we look to history for some clues? Can we draw parallels from the revolutions against monarchs of 18th century Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union or the postwar transformation of Japan? While each hints at conditions and strategies likely to prompt change there are some important elements missing: Unlike post-Renaissance Europe, there has been no enlightenment in North Korea. Unlike the final days of the Cold War, national bankruptcy has not prompted popular revolution. And unlike Japan in the late 1940s, DPRK is not a war-weary nation looking to rebuild its future and sense of national identity. So, where do we look for models for reform?

As Pyongyang’s closest ally, one might think China could provide a good model. Yet, Beijing has done little more than act in its own self-interest, by opposing sanctions that would cause more refugees to cross its borders, and contribute aid — particularly energy.

This is part of the tentative international policy consensus of appeasement and containment. North Korea receives much attention and aid as a result of its “predictably unpredictable” tactics, its foreign revenue generation by sales of missile technology and counterfeiting; and the constant fear that its nuclear technology may be for sale next.

This brings us back to answering the title question: What is all the fuss about? If the situation is projected into the future, with Pyongyang doing something a little more provocative or extreme each time it needs to remind the international community to pay attention and to keep the aid flowing, it is plausible that the veiled threats of nuclear blackmail will become explicit.

Could this prompt U.S. saber rattling (by the increased scale and frequency of exercises in the region, for example)? And could this escalate to the use of a North Korean nuclear weapon against U.S. troops or allies? This may still seem far-fetched, but the DPRK trades on the unpredictable.

Even if you dismiss this as hawkish fantasy or if North Korea still does not have a warhead capable of delivery on the tip of an intercontinental missile, as some argue, how long will it be before Pyongyang sells its nuclear and long-range missile technologies to another state with a rogue regime or to a terrorist group?

Do the United States and its allies have contingency plans for such events? Do the military capabilities exist to pre-empt such attacks, and have the command and control systems been thoroughly exercised around such scenarios to test and develop them and prepare our leaders for the unthinkable? I suspect not. With two major commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq the Pentagon is preoccupied with today’s military crises.

The distinct nervousness in Congress about developing any new nuclear or prompt global strike weapons — such as the proposed Conventional Trident Modification — does little to give Mr. Kim pause before bullying the international community.

While the recent policy shift of the United States toward diplomatic engagement with North Korea (and the similar tactic with Iran) is welcome, it would seem prudent to bolster the deterrent value of the nation’s strategic military assets by developing and deploying the Conventional Trident Modification — a credible nonnuclear preemption option. In other words: Deter or be deterred.


A Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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