TCS Daily

How We Called North Korea's Bluff

By Lee Harris - July 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Toward the end of Stanley Kubrick's Cold War classic, Dr. Strangelove, the Soviet ambassador announces that his country has just succeeded in creating a Doomsday's device. It works like this: The moment a nuclear attack takes place on Russian soil, an enormous thermonuclear bomb will be detonated, the radiation from which -- thanks to its encasement in cobalt -- will engulf the whole world, causing the death of all living creatures on the planet, except for the select few safely tucked away deep in mine shafts and subterranean caverns -- government officials, of course.

Unfortunately, a psychotic Air Force general has ordered his squadron of B-52's to attack the USSR, one of which, manned by the indefatigable Slim Pickens, manages to squeak through, landing its bomb in an obscure corner of Siberia, thereby setting off the fatal chain reaction that will doom the human race.

Dr. Strangelove, upon hearing the announcement of the existence of the Doomsday device -- which up to that moment had been a Soviet top secret -- explodes in anger. "You fools! What good is a Doomsday bomb if no one knows about it? Why didn't you tell anyone?"

And, indeed, that is the whole point of such device -- it exists to act as a deterrent to attack, and hence it is of no value unless your potential enemies know of its existence. Secret bombs, no matter how terrible, will deter no one.

This seems to be a lesson that has not been missed by North Korea; and one must wonder whether Kim Jong Il, who is known to enjoy Western culture, might not be a fan of Kubrick's movie. For that would explain why the North Koreans, unlike the Kubrick's Soviets, are shouting from the rooftops: "We have nukes! We have nukes!" They want us to be in no doubt that they possess such weaponry.

To many this is an ominous sign -- and indeed, before the Iraq War, this is how I was inclined to see it. But with the fall of Saddam Hussein, the North Korean determination to let the world know that it has nukes -- while certainly not good news -- is not quite as terrifying as it would have been had Saddam Hussein been permitted to remain in power.

Let me explain.

In my essay "Our World Historical Gamble," I argued that the greatest threat to our nation, and indeed the world, comes from the possibility of a "rogue" nuclear strike -- or, even worse, a series of such strikes.

The essence of a rogue strike is that it would leave no clues concerning the identity of those who detonated the bomb, and, even more critically, no clues concerning the identity of those who had constructed the bomb in the first place. There would, in short, be no return address that would permitted the US to retaliate for the attack, in which case America would be placed in the dreadful position of doing nothing or lashing out blindly.

For such a nightmare scenario to be plausible, two conditions must hold.

First, there has to be a group that has the motive to make such an attack; and second, there has to be genuine uncertainty on the part of the US concerning the ultimate source of the nuclear weaponry that had been used against us. But such uncertainty can exist only if there are in fact a number of different possible suspect nations, any single one of which might conceivably have acted as the middle man in providing the nuclear device for subsequent use by the terrorists.

After 9/11, there can be no doubt about the first condition: there is in fact an organization that has the psychological motives to make such an attack.

Which brings us to the second condition. If today a rogue nuclear bomb exploded in downtown Chicago, how much uncertainty would there be over the ultimate source of the devise that had been used against us? What countries would we suspect of having sold, or simply having provided, such a weapon for the use of terrorists?

One less country than we would have been forced to suspect not many months ago -- namely, Iraq. We know now that, if such an event occurred, that Iraq could not possibly have anything to do with it. And this means that we would automatically exclude them from our list of possible suspects.

Which is bad news for North Korea.

This is because North Korea's most credible threat to us arises from the possibility that they might sell or provide their nuclear weapons to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. But the only way that North Korea could this, without risk to its own survival, is if there are other countries that could also plausibly be suspected of having supplied such weaponry. If North Korea is the only place in town to buy nuclear weapons, you do not need a Sherlock Holmes to find out who provided the terrorists with theirs. In which case, North Korea would face certain retaliation from the US, most likely in the form of a massive nuclear attack.

This is why the collapse of Saddam Hussein has drastically weakened North Korea's hand. Before the Iraqi war, the chief leading suspect in the case of a hypothetical rogue nuclear strike would have been Iraq. But with the disappearance of Saddam Hussein, North Korea has been put in the uncomfortable position of being the number one suspect in the case of a rogue nuclear attack undertaken by any terrorist group against the US. And this severely reduces North Korea's power to blackmail us.

Of course, this does not mean that North Korea cannot threaten us directly, the way the USSR did; but this is precisely the kind of threat that the US handled during the Cold War. If they strike us, we annihilate them.

This is why those who say that North Korea's development of nuclear weapons brings us closer to the nightmare scenario of a rogue nuclear strike are making a statement that would have been chillingly accurate prior to the Iraqi War; but with the end of Saddam Hussein's regime, this is no longer the case, and for the simple reason that North Korea can no longer plausibly hide behind Saddam Hussein.

Which means that North Korea, if they genuinely intended to provide nuclear weapons to terrorists, should have followed the exact opposite strategy from that mandated by the Doomsday scenario. As Dr. Strangelove might have put it, "You fools! If you wished to sell nuclear weapons to terrorists, why did you tell everyone you had them in the first place? Why didn't you keep quiet?"

The answer is simple: North Korea is not building weapons to be sold to terrorists, but to blackmail the US in helping it out of fear that North Korea might sell such weapons to terrorists; and that is quite a different thing.

It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that North Korea is attempting to simulate irrationality, in order to frighten the United States into bolstering up their failing regime with economic assistance. They want us to believe that they would sell nuclear weapons to Al-Qaeda, yet they are perfectly aware that, in the post-Saddam environment, it is precisely North Korea against which the US would automatically retaliate in the event of a rogue nuclear strike from an "unknown" source.

Thus, counter-intuitively, the strongest possible move that the US could take against North Korea's effort to blackmail us has already been taken: it was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. And that is why the debate on the existence of Iraqi's WMD's completely misses the point: If, in fact, it can be demonstrated that Iraq was not even close to developing nuclear weapons, then it means that no Iraqi devices are out there floating around unaccounted for; hence, if any surface unexpectedly in an American city, there will be no doubt where it ultimately originated, and at whose door to place the blame. In short, it was through Iraq that the US called the North Korea bluff.

Does this mean that we should not help North Korea?

Not at all. Nor is the reason for providing such help simply humanitarian: it is not in American interests -- or the world's -- for a regime like North Korea's to implode. But, at the same time, our help must come attached with a clear and serious statement of American policy: The sale or provision of nuclear weaponry by any country to a terrorist group will be treated exactly as we would treat a direct nuclear attack on the US undertaken by that country.

This is not an issue on which we can afford to be ambiguous.

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