North Korea “Crisis”: In a Multipolar World, Security Equals Nukes

HONG KONG—Alarm bells are ringing with an eyewitness report of Pyongyang’s new uranium enrichment facility and then a lethal artillery duel on the Korean Peninsula. These crises may appear to the panicked West as unwarranted belligerence from an isolated regime. A calmer perspective shows that, to the contrary, Washington and Seoul have been turning up the heat on Pyongyang’s new military leadership under the inexperienced Kim Jong-un, son of supreme leader Kim Jong-il.

Kim the younger has shown convincingly that he’s no timid pushover. When the South Korean military conducted a live-fire exercise in disputed waters, Pyongyang issued a stern warning. The firing continued unabated, and so the North took out several buildings on Yeongpyeong Island, located along the maritime defense perimeter where the corvette Cheonan sank in March.

When it refocuses on the newest nuclear controversy, Pyongyang’s next step could be another round of ballistic missile firings and a nuclear test blast. The blame game is becoming dangerous. Should the United States and its East Asian allies be coming up with harsher punishments for that rogue regime or flogging themselves for reneging on promises to Pyongyang?

The West Misreads Pyongyang

If the enrichment facility is such a deep dark secret, it made absolutely no sense for the North Koreans to host a site inspection by a former chief of Los Alamos National Lab, which designs America’s nuclear weapons. Pyongyang put 2,000 centrifuges on display to show it can produce electricity with or without Western cooperation.

Throughout the now-suspended six-party talks, North Korea insisted on building light-water reactors to produce electricity for its economy. The possibility of a bomb made of enriched uranium constitutes a far lesser threat than the North’s work on plutonium weapons, according to a report by the same U.S. physicist, Siegfried Heckler, after an earlier visit in 2008. The construction of new light-water reactors was not at issue.

The goal of the six-party talks between the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan was to cease plutonium reprocessing at the Yongbyon nuclear facility. The deal to dismantle Yongbyon hinged on replacing its electricity output with Western shipments of 1 million tons of low-grade fuel oil.

Within 14 months, American oil shipments were halted as the White House conceded to opposition in Congress as well as from Seoul and Tokyo. Six months later, Pyongyang responded with its second underground nuclear test. The United States and South Korea then stepped up pressure with a series of offshore naval exercises, which resulted in the sinking of the Cheonan.

Economic Reform Requires Energy

On his recent Asian tour, President Barack Obama referred to the chronic power outages in North Korea with his remark on the “darkness over the North” compared with the nighttime brightness of South Korea. The president neglected to mention that Washington’s bad faith had turned out the lights.

The present situation isn’t entirely gloomy. Following a recent visit to China, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il adopted a policy aimed at spurring its economy for the benefit of an impoverished population. Economic growth relies on power generation. The Hermit Kingdom’s once formidable coal reserves were practically exhausted during the Japanese occupation and would now require a huge investment for little return. Deprived of oil shipments, North Korea has no sizable fuel resources other than the uranium ore within its borders.

Hamstrung by a hostile incoming Congress, the White House cannot conceivably resume oil shipments. The six-party talks are therefore effectively dead.

“Axis of Evil” or New Deterrence Architecture?

Before launching another war over weapons of mass destruction, it is worth considering North Korea’s nuclear intentions. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea conducted test blasts in 2006 and 2009 in a bid for international recognition as a nuclear-weapon state. The DPRK is not alone in wanting to be treated like a big boy. Israel, India and Pakistan are also declared states.

If and when Iran constructs a warhead, the five “outlaws” will have gutted the Non-nuclear Proliferation Treaty. Their challenge is taken as an affront by the nuclear club of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain, which are dismayed that lesser allies are rejecting their nuclear umbrellas.

Arms-control negotiators are students of game theory, particularly chess. Fixated on winning or losing, nuclear strategists suffer a habit of thinking in pairs: the United States vs. Russia in Europe, the United States vs. China in the Pacific, and China vs. India in South Asia. Dualistic thinking also fits the Iranian mindset since chess was originally a Persian game. The next contest promises to be Iran vs. Israel.

Despite its symmetry, the strategic couplet is inherently unstable. The triplet —not twins— has proven to be the more stable configuration for deterrence. Left to each other, a jealous nuclear couple will endlessly amass stockpiles in an arms race. At the height of the Cold War, former wartime allies Soviet Union and the United States brandished 70,000 nuclear warheads at each other, about three times their current stockpiles.

General Charles De Gaulle, a Frenchman who understood infidelity and its roots in pride, ended the superpower duopoly with France’s declaration as the third nuclear state. Initiated in 1958, the “force de frappe” (strike force) served to warn Moscow and Washington against cutting a deal at Europe’s expense or, worse, allowing their mutual distrust to destroy the world. The uncertainty caused by an interloper, a third party that could attack in either direction, pulled the squabbling couple back from the brink of mutual suicide.

Mao Zedong intruded into the Soviet-American standoff in Asia by ordering the first Chinese nuclear blast at Lop Nur in 1964. Thus, the “original sin” of the nuclear couple spawned proliferation, then and now.

Triangular strategic relationships pioneered by De Gaulle and Mao created a balance of fear not through striving for absolute power but with what the French leader called “dissuasion du faible au fort” or deterrence by the weak against the strong.

Dissuasion by the weak is driving nuclear proliferation today. New Delhi counters Beijing’s arsenal and Pakistan, for its own survival, pursues a nuclear program against India. This strategic triangle has withstood the brutal tests of the Afghan War and the Battle of Kargil in divided Kashmir.

To counter Israel’s regional monopoly of 80-plus nuclear warheads, Iran must by the logic of chess and deterrence move its own knight across the board. The near-term pairing, however, leaves another player out of the game—the Arab bloc. Therefore Egypt or Syria will inevitably go nuclear to create a trinity of dissuasion in the Middle East.

Into the Hard Rain

The Korean situation differs somewhat because Pyongyang is superimposing a new strategic layer atop the existing Pacific triangle of China, Russia and the United States. In reaction to the centrifuge report, Seoul jumped the gun by calling for the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons on its territory after a lapse of 19 years. After the recent artillery exchange, Seoul retracted its threat.

As the mirage of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula dissipates, the prospect of an East Asian nuclear triangle beckons Japan. Though Asians will voice strong objections, Tokyo may soon have to walk out from under the American nuclear umbrella and into the hard rain, just as Tel Aviv and Tehran have done. The superpower era is over, and so a multipolar world for its own security must create a new architecture of nuclear terror.

New America Media, News Analysis, Yoichi Shimatsu, Posted: Nov 23, 2010

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