“(The North Koreans) decided to rush forward to complete a weapon that would threaten and deter the United States at a time when U.S. relations with Russia and China were unstable and the new American president hadn’t yet settled in”
Weak as they were, why prudence dictated avoidance.
In this theory, the decades-long nuclear programme fit in. Having nuclear weapons might invite military counters, but working on nuclear weapons fit with the doctrine of ferocity. North Korea’s weakness made it appear as though it were a futile attempt. Its insanity made it seem like another act of frivolity. Guarded by those principles, the North Koreans could develop a nuclear force.
They could also use their nuclear programme as a negotiating tool and a way to inflate their importance. The United States didn’t want North Korea to even try to develop nuclear weapons. Success might be distant, but the risks were high. Since military action was not a reasonable option, extensive negotiation took place to convince North Korea to give up its programme. The U.S. put together a group consisting of itself, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia to negotiate with North Korea. Step back and observe the brilliance of Pyongyang’s strategy. An impoverished tyranny was sitting across the table from five major powers that treated it not only as an equal, but as the equal of all five powers together. The effect on domestic perception had to be electric. It had been crazy to speak of North Korea as a great power; now the negotiations confirmed its place.
There were other benefits as well. Periodically, North Korea won material concessions from these countries in return for halting its program. This was certainly the case when the North Koreans took the benefits, resumed their programme and returned to the negotiating table for another round of affirmation and aid.
But there was one principle embedded in this strategy: North Korea would have a nuclear programme but not obtain a deliverable weapon. The former allowed it to manipulate great powers; the latter could bring catastrophe, even at a high price to the attacker. In March, it began to appear that the North Koreans had abandoned the key element of this strategy. Rather than a perpetual programme, they were actually going to get nuclear weapons. They appeared very close to having one – mere months away – and they did this very publicly.
Yet consider this: They may get a deliverable nuclear weapon, but they acknowledge that they don’t have one yet. Perhaps at this point they can’t be more secretive than they are, but the fact is that they are waving warning flags for all to see. The military balance makes the U.S. extremely cautious about an attack, the South Koreans horrified at the thought, the Japanese ambiguous, and the Chinese and Russians hostile. The North Koreans look at the group they had negotiated with before, and they undoubtedly wonder whether the U.S. will act.
Certainly, the U.S. must be cautious. The North Koreans are ferocious, still a small, weak power in most ways, and crazier than ever, threatening to set the U.S. on fire. Therefore, ask this question: Do the North Koreans truly intend to obtain a nuclear weapon, or to come so close that it is within reach? Having gotten close, do they mean to set up the ultimate negotiation in which they exact massive concessions from the United States and others, including diplomatic recognition, economic concessions and perhaps even a type of confederation with South Korea in which the benefits flow north? After all, South Korea stands to lose the most if there is a war. Perhaps the South would consider some sort of deal?
North Korea doesn’t know what it can get, but one interpretation is that it is creating the framework for a negotiation in which it holds all the cards. The North Koreans likely can’t get all of what they can imagine, but given the American fear of North Korean nuclear weapons, the South Korean fear of war, and tensions between China and the U.S., the Americans would have to consider not only a nuclearised North Korea, but also a North Korea supported by Russia and perhaps China. The public American statement on the reluctance to go to war and its constant search for a diplomatic solution might convince North Korea that it is on the right track.
This is not a forecast but a consideration of an oddity. North Korea exposes itself to more risk by obtaining nuclear weapons. It increases its leverage by being close to having them but not actually having them. The value of nuclear weapons is low; the value of a programme has always shown itself to be high. The more reluctant North Korea is to talk, the crazier it appears, and the crazier it appears, the more at a loss the United States is as to how to deal with it. According to this theory, those who argue that there is no military option and that we must accept North Korea as a nuclear power may actually have a point, but it’s not the point they think.
If the U.S. accepts a nuclearised North Korea, North Korea will be the dog that chased a car and caught it, and will now have to figure out what to do with it.
I continue to think war is the most likely outcome. But as time has gone on, I’ve noted the complexities of such a war for the United States and have recalled other, much less extreme moments when the North Koreans used their nuclear programme as a tool for bargaining. That was my view until March, when the level of urgency spiked, and I abandoned it and took the view that war was the likely outcome. I am obligated, however, to point out my previous view, which would have held this to be the mother of all negotiations. If that is going to happen, it must happen quickly. The U.S., South Korea and Japan all have said they want negotiations.
But every sign indicates that North Korea is rushing to acquire a deliverable weapon and deter any country from tampering with it. War would occur before North Korea can reach that point, in my view. But in the back of my mind, I have to be open to the possibility that the ferocious, weak and crazy cripple is alive and well. If so, the North Koreans believe they have a precise understanding of the red line. In the end, I don’t believe they do.