“(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”

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

bother? Crazy

as

they

were,

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.

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