TCS Daily


North Korean Extremes

By James D. Miller - May 7, 2003 12:00 AM

An atomically armed Al Qaeda might replicate the Holocaust. While they lack the capacity to refine weapons-grade plutonium, Al Qaeda has the cash to buy atomic arms from North Korea, a morbidly poor, emotionally unstable power better at building bombs than growing food. If North Korea finds itself with a surplus of nuclear weapons but a shortage of food, they would likely sell atomics to rich terrorists.

Neither blockades nor sanctions can stop North Korean proliferation. We can't even keep drugs out of our prisons, so it's unlikely we could ever quarantine the entire nation of North Korea. Besides, a North Korea further impoverished by sanctions would have increased incentives to sell weapons.

Obviously, we could never trust a North Korean promise not to proliferate, particularly when proliferation would be so profitable. So, to avoid the horrors of nuclear-powered terrorists we must eliminate the hazards of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

If we can't induce North Korea to relinquish nuclear weapons voluntarily, we must deprive them of their weapons by force. We mustn't, however, employ the same military strategy as we did with Saddam: a slow buildup clearly foreshadowing an overwhelming attack, for North Korea would surely respond to an imminent military assault by striking Tokyo and Seoul with weapons of mass destruction.

If we use force against North Korea, our only moral option is to hit them with a surprise attack designed to minimize their ability to kill our troops and allies. True, if President Bush intends to employ military power against North Korea it would be easier politically for him to first threaten Pyongyang, thereby giving them the chance to capitulate. But the risk of North Korea launching a surprise attack itself is so great that we mustn't chance cornering them. You don't threaten a well-armed madman; you kill him quickly.

A surprise attack against North Korea would correct the strategic problem created by our speedy triumph over Saddam. The lesson other evil dictators may have learned from our Iraqi victory is that to have any hope of deterring U.S. power you need an atomic arsenal. If we launched a surprise attack on North Korea because they have atomics, however, we would show that having nuclear weapons can actually decrease a dictator's security. A surprise preemptive attack on North Korea might therefore convince the ruling Mullahs of Iran that they can enhance their security by forgoing atomic weapons production.

If President Bush is unwilling to launch a surprise attack on North Korea, he must submit to their blackmail. Obviously, we shouldn't give them a large up-front payment in return for promises of cooperation. Rather, if we bribe North Korea we should offer them a continued stream of income in return for continued access to their nuclear facilities. Of course, giving in to North Korean blackmail would encourage other nations to start producing atomics so that we would bribe them, too, to behave. The U.S. is so rich compared to rogue nations, however, that it might not be too expensive for us to bribe our way to peace.


James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.
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