TCS Daily

Tech's Trump Card

By Dale Franks - January 7, 2003 12:00 AM

The situation in North Korea has made a number of unpleasant facts abundantly clear. There are some instructive lessons to be learned. But the few options available to us for dealing with the situation aren't palatable.

Kim Jong-Il wants North Korea to obtain nuclear weapons, and he is evidently willing to pay a fairly stiff price for the realization of this ambition. We tried to buy him off diplomatically with the Agreed Framework in 1994, presuming that diplomatic payoffs could wean him from the vision of a nuclear North Korea.

Unfortunately, diplomacy, as we should now be painfully aware, is of limited use against rogue states. Such states are perfectly willing to break their treaty commitments if doing so helps to fulfill the objectives of their leadership. They have no particular need to justify their actions to their populace, since the people are told only what the leadership wishes them to know, and a pervasive security apparatus is available to ruthlessly punish dissent. Absent a direct military threat, the leaders of such states can safely ignore almost any diplomatic pressure, no matter how severe, as long as their personal leadership of the state is not threatened. As a practical matter, this means that the assurances of totalitarian dictators, no matter how solemnly given, are worth less than the paper they are printed on.

If North Korea could be isolated and made a pariah state, there's a fairly good chance that the Kim regime could not survive. Unfortunately, neither the Chinese, who provide 40% of North Korea's food and practically all of it's electrical power, nor the South Koreans, who have massive investments in the north, are particularly eager to sign on to such a policy. Indeed, the Washington Times' Bill Gertz is reporting that the Chinese are providing the North Koreans with materials to assist them in their extraction of plutonium from spent reactor fuel rods. Additionally, a number of other states find North Korea to be a reliable source for all sorts of military technology, especially ballistic missiles, such as those that the Spanish navy recently found on a ship bound for Yemen.

This does not bode well for the idea that diplomatic pressure can be used to isolate North Korea any more than the agreement of North Korea can be assumed to be trustworthy.

Nor does the prospect of military action appear to be in the cards, either.

For years, critics have been saying that the Pentagon's declared strategy of being able to fight two simultaneous regional conflicts is little more than wishful thinking. It should be fairly obvious that the critics are right.

The focus on Iraq has absorbed the main thrust of our military planning, and we simply don't have the forces or transport available to bring credible military pressure on North Korea, absent a full scale mobilization of the Reserve and National Guard forces, along with the Strategic Sealift Reserve. Such a mobilization would have far-reaching effects on the economy, as millions of workers would be removed from the civilian work force, and American hulls would be essentially removed from the global transportation system. Clearly, the Defense Department does not have an active-duty force capable of fighting both Iraq and North Korea at the same time.

We do, of course, have the capability to carry out the "Osirak Option", a strike to destroy the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Unfortunately, the Kim government has the ability to produce nuclear weapons even without the Yongbyon facility; something that Iraq was unable to do without the Osirak reactor. Such a strike might delay, but would not end, the Korean dictator's race towards building a nuclear arsenal.

The size and scope of North Korea's conventional forces also deters the implementation of larger scale military pressure. The North Korean People's Army maintains over one million troops on active duty. Even if one were to assume that our forces are incomparably more lethal, such a large conventional force at the very least requires the prudent planner to consider his options very carefully. Combine that large conventional force with even a small nuclear arsenal, and military options begin to take on an uncomfortable amount of risk.

We do, however, have at least one option left to put on the table. If North Korea wishes to build a nuclear arsenal, we may well have to acknowledge our inability to stop them. In so doing, however, we might regretfully have to allow Japan to build a nuclear deterrent of its own. The fear of a nuclear-armed Japan might cause the Chinese to begin pressuring their client in North Korea to lighten up. This is not an option without risks of its own, however. If the Chinese didn't pressure the North Koreans to halt their nuclear program, then at the end of the day we'd be left with a tense, volatile East Asia, bristling with nuclear weapons.

Finally, this whole situation highlights the need for us to concentrate work on a ballistic missile defense system. While such a system might not protect us from a full-scale, USSR-sized nuclear attack, we should at least be working on deploying a system that can reliably defend against the small-scale attacks we are likely to face from rogue states like North Korea. The creation of such a system, and its extension to Japan - especially a nuclear-armed Japan - and South Korea, might even be enough to give Kim Jong-Il second thoughts about his policies. Perhaps even more importantly, it might give the Chinese leadership some powerful second thoughts about their client as well.

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