commentary

(Orange County Register)

April 13, 2003

Now, Back to the Real Threat? The One with Nukes

by Nina Hachigian and Bruce W. Bennett

Remember North Korea?

While the mop-up of the war in Iraq dominates the news today, North Korea remains an unresolved crisis that could mean nuclear war for the United States.

Pyongyang's leaders are convinced they are soon to be targeted by the U.S. military. Sound irrational? Not from the North Korean viewpoint. Their nation was denounced as a member of the "axis of evil" by President Bush last year, as were Iraq and Iran. So when the North Koreans see bombs blasting Baghdad, they wonder if they're next on America's hit list. The challenge facing the United States is to convince North Korea that it is not, and need not ever be, our next target in the new policy of pre-emptive attack. If we fail to negotiate with Pyongyang, the war in Iraq could seem like a minor skirmish.

North Korea is restarting its nuclear program. There is a difference in kind, not just in quantity, between a North Korea with one or two nuclear weapons (as the CIA estimates it now has) and a North Korea with the 10 or so nuclear warheads it could have within months.

A North Korea armed with one or two nuclear weapons might use them in a last-gasp attack in a military conflict with the United States. The North Koreans might hope that this would stop their demise, but might also be satisfied if they simply exact revenge. They would likely target Seoul and Tokyo, causing perhaps 100,000 deaths or more.

But if North Korea is limited to one or two nuclear weapons, one or both may not work (for a lack of testing). Further, U.S. and South Korean forces might be able to destroy the North Korean weapons and/or the command, control, and communications systems required to execute them before they are launched.

The military calculus would be quite different if North Korea had 10 or so nuclear weapons. The North Koreans might use some of their nuclear weapons at the start of a war to destroy key elements of our combined military forces in South Korea and thereby prove their strength. They might hope to prevent U.S. escalation by threatening Seoul and Tokyo and perhaps even U.S. cities. We would be less likely able to destroy their nuclear weapons before they were used. Serious damage, at least to South Korea and likely beyond, would seem inevitable. Some analysts believe that U.S. nuclear retaliatory capability would prevent such a North Korean escalation. But Pyongyang has proven quite willing to sacrifice its people to achieve its goals.

And if North Korea acquires 10 or so nuclear weapons and is able to produce more, it will also inevitably affect the strategic balance in the region.

Japan knows it is a potential target of North Korean nuclear weapons, and would feel pressured to develop its own. A South Korea that wants a more equal alliance with the United States might have the same view. Such developments would pressure China to develop nuclear forces beyond its current modest capabilities, and in turn might put increasing demands on U.S. nuclear weapons.

The result of all this? A nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia that no one wants.

There is also the issue of proliferation. With 10 or so weapons, and more on the way, the North Koreans would be seriously tempted to sell a few to prop up their regime. A nuclear al-Qaida (or other terrorist organization) would be a horrible consequence.

These nightmare scenarios cry out for the United States to sit down with North Korea and talk about its demands for aid. It might seem as if we would be succumbing to blackmail. But it's better than succumbing to blackmail of a future North Korea with 10 nuclear weapons.

Finally, those awed by the performance of U.S. forces in Iraq need to understand that military action would be a dubious solution to the North Korean problem, even if Pyongyang were unable to use its nuclear arsenal. A surgical strike on the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon likely won't destroy any weapons North Korea already has, and the North Koreans likely also have other enrichment facilities in hidden locations. Such a strike is nearly certain to provoke retaliation by Pyongyang, one in which South Korea would be highly vulnerable to North Korean artillery, missiles, and chemical and biological weapons.

Any subsequent South Korean or U.S. military response against North Korea could lead to an escalation spiral toward a massive war that would surely involve China and Japan.

Negotiation could avert all this. If we focus our efforts on diplomacy, there is a good chance we can resolve our differences with North Korea peacefully.


Nina Hachigian, the Asia/Pacific policy scholar, co-wrote this column with RAND think tank colleague Bruce Bennett.

This commentary originally appeared in Orange County Register on April 13, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.