America's Grim Options on North Korea

For the past week, the stunning report of nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker regarding North Korea's uranium enrichment program has been sending shock waves throughout the world. This is indeed an extremely grave development, although the most serious aspect of it is not what most people think, i.e., the mere fact that North Korea has the bomb -- that particular horse left the barn several years ago.

Instead, the most dangerous aspect of North Korean nuclear-state status is the fact that the DPRK has a very consistent record of selling every weapons technology it possesses to literally anyone who will buy. This record includes the regime's well-known deal with Pakistan to obtain uranium and uranium enrichment technology in exchange for missiles. Other customers included Iran, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

To many, the idea that North Korea might actually sell nuclear warheads to Islamic extremists might seem implausible, even for the North Koreans. It is obvious to outsiders that to even attempt this, in the current international climate, would be suicidally reckless. But North Korea is perhaps the ultimate rogue state. It has never paid any attention to the normal rules of international conduct: it sells narcotics; it forges currency; it blows up passenger airplanes; it murders the entire families of defectors; it kidnaps children from neighboring countries; it assassinates diplomats; it digs invasion tunnels; and, as we saw yet again with the Yeonpyeong island attacks, it lashes out militarily whenever it feels the need.

The result of the DPRK's dramatically enhanced uranium enrichment capacity is a situation much worse than the one which nearly triggered a war in 1994, during the Clinton administration. Compared to then, North Korean nuclear capability is now a fact, not a possibility; and unless action is taken, the regime will begin adding warheads to its arsenal at the rate of perhaps one a month.

What to do now? Unfortunately, we are at the point where the easy options have all evaporated. Contrary to the bizarre conclusion of Dr. Hecker in his report, it is obvious that further direct diplomatic approaches to North Korea itself will be pointless. All the years of frantic diplomacy to date have only succeeded in buying the North time to bring its nuclear weapons program to successful fruition. It is now perfectly clear that, from the very beginning, North Korea was never sincerely willing to bargain away its nuclear activities. And even if that had been the case, how could one trust any agreement with the North, given its consistent willingness to violate agreements almost before the ink was dry?

There are, however, some meaningful countermoves available to the United States and its allies in East Asia, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Two of these measures, in the author's opinion, are mandatory as the minimum necessary response to the current crisis. In addition, if we are serious about dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem once and for all, there are several more serious steps we urgently need to consider.

Necessary Step 1: Nuclear Terrorism Means War With North Korea

The first immediately necessary step is required because the U.S. must prevent, at any cost, the sale of nuclear warheads by the North. Al-Qaeda is only the most frightening of many possible buyers. The U.S. must now make it clear to Kim Jong-Il, in no uncertain terms, that if a terrorist nuclear weapon ever detonates on U.S. soil, the U.S. will not wait for an investigation before retaliating directly and massively against the North Korean leadership itself. In other words, the North Korean government must be convinced to totally abstain from nuclear proliferation for the sake of its own physical survival; and if a direct threat to the lives of the Kim family is the only way to do that, then such a threat must duly be made.

I first suggested in 2005 that this explicit linkage between any incident of nuclear terrorism and a state of war between the U.S. and North Korea had been made inevitable by the North's acquisition of nuclear weapons; nothing I have seen since has led me to change my mind. Indeed, the increase in enriched uranium capability implied by the Hecker report has only made the need for this policy more dire.

It is crucial that the personal accountability of the Kim family be openly stated by the U.S. government. It is no longer appropriate or useful to maintain the fiction that the North Korean government exists as a separate entity from the Kim family dictatorship. All the important decisions in North Korea are made by the Kim family, regardless of the family members' wisdom, qualifications, or competence. The Kim family is supremely indifferent to its neighbors' desire for peace. Moreover, contrary to its propaganda claims, it does not care a whit for the welfare of the Korean nation; the lives of Korean people; or the reunification of Korea -- after all, the North's acquisition of nuclear weapons has made reunification far less likely, and obviously placed Korean lives in far greater danger, both north and south of the DMZ.

The regime has already proved conclusively, by its own actions, that it cares about one thing and one thing only: the perpetuation of its dictatorial power. That is why it is now necessary for the U.S. to make it clear to the Kims that they will personally be made to pay a price for any nuclear proliferation activity. This might strike many as a crude Mafia tactic unsuited to the U.S. government. Perhaps so, but that very fact is precisely why such a threat would be clearly understood by the Kim family -- which is already an organized-crime organization in essence -- and lead to an actual change in their behavior, which is now mandatory if we are serious about avoiding a truly apocalyptic war which could pull in China and Japan.

Necessary Step 2: Restore U.S. Nukes to South Korea

The second urgently necessary step is to restore nuclear weapons to South Korea. Until they were removed in 1991 as part of an arms control agreement between the U.S. and USSR, the U.S. maintained several dozen B-61 gravity bombs in the ROK, intended to be used against DPRK armor in the narrow Korean mountain passes if the North ever attacked the South. This step is necessary now simply to provide minimal security for South Korea, in light of the new strategic situation that the North has created with its nuclear program. In fact, it is so obviously necessary that South Koreans themselves have begun to suggest it, something unthinkable only a few years ago when huge crowds were demonstrating in Seoul's streets against the U.S. presence in the peninsula. The mood in the ROK has changed dramatically since then.

Furthermore, the U.S. should seriously consider going beyond the status quo in 1991, not only in the sense of introducing more modern warheads than the antiquated (and probably decommissioned) B-61s, but as a deliberate strategic step to put economic pressure on Pyongyang. For example, the U.S. and South Korea could jointly announce that, in order to secure the ROK in light of the North's many provocative acts, the new nuclear policy will be to, at all times, maintain a 5-to-1 numerical superiority in warheads on the peninsula.

This calibrated escalation would have several highly desirable effects. First, it would confront the DPRK regime with the choice of either 1) accepting a permanent state of strategic inferiority (one very obvious to elements of the DPRK military, which might be looking for an excuse to get rid of the Kims), or 2) bankrupting itself to keep up with the increasing warhead count of the U.S.-ROK alliance (we must not forget that the North's weakest point is its laughable economy). Also, this step will ramp up the pressure on China, which is the only nation that has the power to effect peaceful change in Pyongyang; this is especially the case if Seoul is granted command authority over the nukes (more on this possibility on the next page).