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North Korea Endgame

It seems that we're about prepared to admit that the administration's pseudo-policy toward North Korea has definitively failed. I seem to recall having heard something about the danger posed by leaving the worst weapons in the hands of the worst people. Something like that, you know. But at least this way we eliminated painted the Iraqi threat schools.

May 7, 2005 | Permalink


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» North Korea Tamed In Four Cold-Blooded Steps from Daniel Starr
There are things we can do about North Korea. And since North Korea is on the verge of testing a nuclear weapon, we'd better start doing them. When the history books talk about Afghanistan, they'll make Clinton sound like a... [Read More]

Tracked on May 8, 2005 6:06:28 AM


The US, being the most powerful nation on earth, can't really be expected to fight a nation that has the means to fight back. Surely you know that. Plus, how much oil does North Korea have? Enough to make it profitable for Halliburton, et al to justify a military action? I think not.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | May 7, 2005 12:46:11 PM

When Lebanon was in chaos, Reagan solved the "problem" of Grenada.
While Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea threaten to destabilize the world with nuclear proliferation, Bush attacks the Iraq "problem."

Bush's foreign policy can be seen as nothing but gutless, mindless use of foreign policy issues for domestic political gain with little thought to the consequences for world peace.

I guess Bush figures he'll leave the tough problems, like nuclear proliferation and healthcare, to Hillary's presidency.

Posted by: epistemology | May 7, 2005 12:50:52 PM

North Korea is, in many ways, the first time the international has been confronted with the nut-with-a-nuke scenario. While the Cold War was the first example of two hostile nations with nuclear arms, both the US nor the USSR generally handled those weapons in a rational manner.

North Korea, however, is bat-shit fucking loco, and as to much military power to brushed aside like we were able to do with Sadaam. Not only would military intervention put the entire region under nuclear threat, North Korea also has enough artilery pointed at Seoul to kill everyone there several times over.

Dealing with a rational government we could hold out the carrot of aide in exchange for disarmament, but that only works if the government cares about it's people. "Dear Leader" has shown no such inclination.

So, the world is stuck between the devil and deep blue sea. We've got nothing we can give him that he wants enough to ditch nukes for, but any military option would be horrifically costly in blood and treasure.

Posted by: Zach | May 7, 2005 1:03:57 PM

cue the "It was Clinton's fault" chorus!

Posted by: John | May 7, 2005 1:16:21 PM

I wouldn't say this is Clinton's fault, but I think it's hard to argue that it's Bush's fault. There isn't a whole lot he could have done differently. The article speculates that he might have been better off without involving China (an opinion I don't recall hearing before Bush involved China) or greater reliance on positive reinforcement (which is a euphemism for paying tribute).

It seems the main focus of the article is criticizing Bush for not having a "plan B" without any clear idea of what other options are available.

Posted by: Xavier | May 7, 2005 1:47:19 PM

"Bush's foreign policy can be seen as nothing but gutless, mindless use of foreign policy issues for domestic political gain with little thought to the consequences for world peace."

Exactly. I've always felt that domestic politics were the principal goal in mind at the end of things. Wars are a great issue for Repubs - unpopular among the left but generally supported by the right/center, popular among business, gets the media (and the public) in line, and a great way to spend into a deficit without putting anything into 'welfare.' The domestic support they get is used for support for the central organizing goals of eliminating welfare programs and cutting taxes and setting up a corporate state. It's not rocket science, though it is despicable.

Posted by: sean | May 7, 2005 1:51:16 PM

I wouldn't say it's Clinton's fault, or that it's Bush's. To the extent Bush's critics have a plan (a "he-should've") it seems to be what Clinton did. That was, unfortunately, a manifest failure. Bush declined to repeat the failure. Both administrations have seen N. Korea move toward nuclear capability; with Clinton's the movement was simply hidden from view, but no less real.

Conventional diplomacy has repeatedly been tried, and failed. Force would be a disastrous option. Currently the US is trying less conventional diplomacy (non-unilateralism at work!) and it's failing too. So, what next?

Posted by: Shelby | May 7, 2005 2:31:26 PM

Next? A decapitation strike? Nuclear first use on our part? Obliteration of the conventional forces aimed at Seoul?

This is a problem with 3 possible resolutions; KJI dead from old age, dead from US action, or dead in a palace coup. The 1st is too far off, the 2nd is too disasterous to take but so seriously, and the 3rd is almost as precarious as the 2nd.

How long before North Korea gets the technology to hit Los Angeles? I'll bet it's before we get effective ABM defense.

Posted by: SamAm | May 7, 2005 2:45:29 PM

with Clinton's the movement was simply hidden from view, but no less real.

Indeed. Under the Agreed Framework, the North Koreans could still make progress, it was just hampered by having their entire enrichment process under seal. However, eventually they would have been able to bang rocks together hard enough to create more weapons-grade plutonium.

Remember, greatly restricting the ability of a nation to make nuclear bombs is no better than allowing them completely free rein.

Posted by: mds | May 7, 2005 3:03:24 PM

Now what exactly happens if the US "loses" in a complete surrender?

Let's say the US declares it will not invade NK, offers most-favored nation trading and says Japan and Seoul should do what they think is best.

Walmart gets some shirts cheaper than it gets from China

A lot of starving North Koreans get more food - just maybe North Korea can get wealthy enough that it can reunite with South Korea without adding a 10 million people Houston-area sized slum onto the outskirts of Seoul.

Seriously, what is the US doing here?

Posted by: Ian Richardson | May 7, 2005 3:14:19 PM

I'm inclined to cut Bush some slack on this one -- by the time he entered office, North Korea already HAD at least one Bomb, which by itself made a US attack impractical. The main blame attaches to Clinton for not attacking NK BEFORE it got that first Bomb -- including, if need be, threatening a nuclear attack on NK or even following up on such a threat -- just as Bush's worst sin in this regard is the fact that he's allowed Iran to move toward similar status, while screwing around ad absurdum with Iraq instead. But how much screaming, really, did the Right do at the time about Clinton's failure to take such action? Not much -- and they utered not a word about his failure to keep Pakistan from acquiring the Bomb. Unfortunately, most political leaders' idea of "realism" consists of simply sticking their heads in the sand when confronted with a radically new and enormous threat if really serious action is required to prevent that threat.

As for North Korea, I very much question whether Kim is "bat-shit fucking loco", and I certainly don't think most of his military officers are. What we're seeing with NK is an example of the REAL reason why it's stupendously more dangerous to let dictatorships have the Bomb than to let democracies have it: the officials in dictatorships have an entirely rational fear of being violently overthrown and massacred (or, at the least, imprisoned) by their own people, and so, in order to gain enough cash to prevent that from happening, they are willing to take risks with the Bomb -- sticking up their neighbors, or even selling the Bomb on the black market as a last-ditch resort -- that would be utterly insane for a democracy but are perfectly reasonable for them. Apparently this is precisely the reason NK decided to acquire the Bomb; at least one Japanese expert on the country says its officials regularly mention Ceaucescu's fate when they're talking to foreign diplomats.

So what do we do? Bribe NK's government forever to keep them from using the Bomb? Pfui. At some point that government is going to collapse anyway, and the longer it survives the more Bombs it will have accumulated by the time it does collapse -- all of them ready to fall into God knows whose hands when that happens. What we should do, quite obviously, is:

(1) Tell NK's government, publicly, that we will not pay one penny to keep them propped up in power.

(2) Tell them, publicly, that we ARE willing to give them absolutely any help they need to give up power peacefully without being slaughtered by their own people. (Of course, to do that we'll have to have enough troops free to occupy and stabilize NK if Kim ever DOES give up power -- yet another reason for getting the hell out of the minor sideshow of Iraq, fast.)

(3) Tell the world, publicly, that if the US ever undergoes an attack with a smuggled nuke, we will have absolutely no choice but to make 3 or 4 retaliatory nuclear attacks upon EVERY nation in the world, guilty or innocent, that MIGHT have been the original source of that Bomb -- and that the same thing will happen to any nation if we obtain evidence that it is trying to sell the Bomb on the black market. (This horrendous threat will, after all, be a common-sense necessity for us -- and for every other nation -- in the brave new world of the 21st century.)

Note that not even these measures will provide us much help in dealing with Pakistan, which really IS a bat-shit fucking loco country -- equipped with an unstable goernment teetering on the verge of collapse, and saturated with suicidal religious nuts. (By contrast, NK's government is not insane; merely psychopathic -- which will make them far easier to deal with.) The only things I can think of to do to even somewhat reduce the threat from Pakistan are to (1) put as much diplomatic pressure as we possibly can on India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute by dividing that province along the current line of demarcation; and (2) drop our import restrictions on Pakistani textiles contingent upon that country's good behavior. Anyone see any sign that either US political party has the slightest interest in taking such measures?

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | May 7, 2005 4:04:16 PM

I think that (3) might be a little problematic since you'd have to include Russia in the cast.

Posted by: Tim H. | May 7, 2005 5:15:10 PM

Well, I'm going to leave out part 3 of your NK solution because that be a horrific crime against humanity, which, if actually implimented, would almost certainly lead the complete nuclear destruction of the United States in retaliation. A cure worse than the orginal illness

So baring that, your first two points aren't so bad, provide they are followed by the complete and massive inspection and removal of all nuclear material in NK, and permanent observation, all of which must be an absolute condition of any aide.

Posted by: Zach | May 7, 2005 5:39:57 PM

Any takers on the "what would happen if the U.S. 'lost' " question?

North Korea with nuclear weapons, emergency food subsidies and free trade with the US and anyone else in the west who want to follow the US lead.

The worst case scenario is that North Korea does not become rich. Is everyone imagining a case then that North Korea puts a bomb on the open market and Al-Qaeda outbids the United States? If Al-Qaeda can't outbid the United States (it can't) then why would NK sell to them?

Why would a rich nuclear North Korea be more of a threat than rich nuclear China?

We are not talking about the Middle East where for domestic reasons the US has to prop up an apartheid-state that is hated by everyone else in the region.

What reason could North Korea imaginably have to bomb any nation we care about?

If North Korean people are hungry who would not be hungry if there was free trade, what imaginable principle is the US serving that outweighs actual people going hungry?

Posted by: Ian Richardson | May 7, 2005 6:51:42 PM

Read (3) of Bruce Moomaw and think: who is batshit loco insane?

One of the problems that our diplomacy faced what that Bolton made a valiant effort to convince all countries in the region that WE are batshit loco insance.

It is also worth to notice that NK proliferated missile technology, while Pakistan was marketting its nuclear skills (pretty shitty nukes, if you ask me, but the best ones that are available in the open market).

One batshit loco insane thing invented by Busheviks is "decapitation doctrine". Sooner or later it will be aimed at USA: we are number one, everybody copies what we do.

Posted by: piotr | May 7, 2005 7:12:42 PM

3) is of course irresponsible and impractical. KJI should be made aware that the U.S. would use “all means necessary” to remove him from power should he use his nukes. I am certain someone has whispered that in his ear already. I am guessing that KJI would be deterred by this since I think he primarily wants to stay in power.

Would not 1) be perceived as a threat that we are indeed plotting to remove him from power and tempt him to rattle his nukes?

How would 2) be useful since I am pretty sure KJI has no interest in giving up power peacefully or otherwise?

Will KJI be deterred from selling a nuke to a terrorist organization if he knows that his government will be destroyed if it is used and traced to him? We better hope so since I think that is were are going to end up.

Posted by: Robert Brown | May 7, 2005 7:17:17 PM

In reply: of course I'm leaving Russia off the retaliation List, for obvious reasons. Ditto China. Nuclear superpowers have to be coped with in different ways --although God help the world if China's tyranny goes down with a disorderly crash, or if a new Russian one does so. But, regarding smaller nations, what the hell else can we do than make such a threat in advance? Sit back and allow ourselves to undergo the nuclear obliteration of a city without any retaliation at all, thereby encouraging whoever did it to take another bite? And ANY nation on Earth that undergoes such an attack -- including Russia, China, Britain or France -- will of course be faced with exactly the same necessary course of action.

As I say, this is an utterly delightful new century we're entering (and that's during the period before genetic engineering also makes accidental or deliberate doomsday plagues a routine threat). Nuclear proliferation is a clear and present danger not only to democracy worldwide but to human civilization worldwide, and it is long past time that somebody started sounding the trumpet about it. The more additional tyrannies and shaky states acquire the Bomb, the more utterly nightmarish the situation will get.

One additional note: it is, of course, far more likely that NK will use the Bomb to try sticking up one of its rich but Bombless neighbors than that it will do so to us. The only way to prevent this would be not only to allow Japan and South Korea to develop the Bomb, but to give it to them ourselves -- and in the near future (probably within the next two years).

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | May 7, 2005 7:22:51 PM


The problem with 3) is the "guilty of innocent" part.

Posted by: Robert Brown | May 7, 2005 7:38:57 PM


It is difficult to envision where complete surrender would lead.

Would Japan and South Korea feel abandoned by the U.S and would a nuclear arms race ensue? Does KJI have expansionist plans beyond South Korea (or would he develop them)? Assuming that KJI continues to devote a large portion of his economy to his military, would we be worse off with a deterred NK with 1000 nukes rather than 20 nukes?

Your free trade to wealth scenario implies that KJI would be willing to reform his economic system. If he were willing to do that we wouldn’t be here would we?

To summarize: beats me.

Posted by: Robert Brown | May 7, 2005 8:00:27 PM

Believe me, Robert, the "guilty or innocent" part chills my blood too. But the horrible thing about the situation is that -- if we can't identify who provided a smuggled nuke -- we will have no choice but to either attack every government that might have deliberately provided it, or none. And if we attack none in such a case, we will encourage more such attacks on us.

All of which is further reason why it is absolutely crucial to human civilization for us to prevent further nuclear proliferation: the more nations acquire the Bomb, the more suspects will exist in the event of such an untraceable attack. And, of course, the innocent nations which we attack during such indiscriminate retaliation will feel it necessary to retaliate against us (or against whichever nation engages in such indiscriminate retribution) -- and away we go.

For the first time in human history, we are entering an era in which it will be possible for a nation to undergo a devastating attack without even being sure who attacked it -- which wrecks even the deterrent of nuclear retaliation. We must absolutely minimize the extent to which this situation exists, even if we can't totally rid the world of nuclear weapons (or of devastating biological ones).

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | May 8, 2005 12:15:27 AM

Me: "(2) Tell [the North Korean government], publicly, that we ARE willing to give them absolutely any help they need to give up power peacefully without being slaughtered by their own people. (Of course, to do that we'll have to have enough troops free to occupy and stabilize NK if Kim ever DOES give up power -- yet another reason for getting the hell out of the minor sideshow of Iraq, fast.)"

Robert Brown: "How would (2) be useful since I am pretty sure KJI has no interest in giving up power peacefully or otherwise?"

HE may not, Robert -- but his officials and military officers will, if the alternative is the death of most of them and their families. This is the main piece of remaining hope in this situation: for all the whoop-de-doo about "insane dictators", there are very few insane DICTATORSHIPS. Any nutcase dictator willing to launch a suicidal nuclear attack must have a government and military bureaucracy which is also composed mostly of suicidal nuts for him to be able to do so. And the odds against this are very long. In the last few days of the Third Reich, Hitler kept ordering the Army to burn Germany to the ground; his officers simply ignored him.

So the real danger of nuclear proliferation is not "mad dictators". It consists instead of (1) perfectly rational dictatorships which are nevertheless willing to take wild gambles with the Bomb because of their fear of what their own people will do to them if they lose internal power; and (2) shaky states (such as Pakistan) whose governments are on the verge of losing control of their own countries and their own nuclear arsenals. The latter are more dangerous becuase they're more uncontrollable. The former may be persuaded to give up power peacefully, IF we can convincingly assure their safety from their own people afterwards. Kim himself might very well be able to survive a retaliatory American nuclear attack, but most of his officials and their families would not -- and it's to them that such a US appeal would (explicitly) be made; with luck, the moment Kim himself decided to order a nuclear attack, one of his own military officers would put a bullet in his head. The current North Korean government is riding a tiger and knows it perfectly well; we must give them a way to climb off without getting eaten.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | May 8, 2005 12:29:48 AM

Bruce Moomaw:

For a man who obviously spends undue time thinking about the subject it is remarkable that every suggestion and bit of analysis in your rant except the final question mark is frighteningly obtuse.

Ceaucescu's fate was NOT "slaughter" by his own people, as you seem to think. Neither was Gorbachev's when the USSR stood down, in a nuclear sense. And you would have to bomb Pakistan as well as Russia and China, under your oh-so-clever schoolyard threat embodied in point three.

The thing to do with North Korea is what Clinton did and Bush is doing. The only difference between the two approaches being that, while Bush negotiates, deals, stalls, etc., he gains the votes of the people like Moomaw who shouldn't (because of lack of insight or temperment) be thinking of such things, by saber-rattling.

Nuclear proliferation is inevitable. You can't stop the march of technology. Our goal is to prevent any untoward event while the forces of capitalism sweep the world into complacent consumerism. Moomaw's overheated analysis and fantasies of revenge are counterproductive.

Posted by: epistemology | May 8, 2005 12:30:41 AM

NK is what Iraq would have been if we had done nothing. NK proves its a good thing we did something.

Posted by: Chad | May 8, 2005 12:33:36 AM


Post 1980 China has injured the idea, to the extent that it ever was healthy, that there is a necessary connection between democratic governance and economic growth or vast improvements in national quality of life.

Post 1990 USSR has fatally injured the idea that there is a communist conspiracy that aims to overthrow US allies and ultimately the US in tyrannical revolutions.

I have not seen evidence that NK is unwilling to follow the route of China. I'm not an expert but I doubt there is such evidence.

It is absolutely not the case if that NK wanted to go the route of China we would not be here.

North Korea as an increasingly wealthy dictatorship selling slippers and t-shirts...

I don't see the threat. I don't see a threat that they'll sell weapons to Al-Qaeda, though it is very slightly more of a threat if they are poor and isolated.

I don't see how they would "stick up" Japan or Korea any more than, say, Pakistan can "stick up" Iran.

The North Korea threat seems more like Cold War inertia, that tragically is preventing policies that would make the people of North Korea much better off.

The opponent is not North Korea or Kim Jong Il, the opponent is some weird phantasm in the minds of some Americans.

Noone can actually see a threat, or describe it, but they know its there somewhere.

Posted by: Ian Richardson | May 8, 2005 12:56:50 AM


NK is what Iraq would have been if we had done nothing. NK proves its a good thing we did something.

Yeah, Saddam was just about to stuff the yellowcake from Africa into the aluminum tubes from China. John Wayne Bush to the rescue. While Bush was preparing for war with the country his daddy had disarmed, Pakistan was harboring bin Laden and dealing nukes to the world. There was nothing in Iraq, and they weren't even close.

Now don't leave your homework until Sunday night. The school year isn't over yet.

Posted by: epistemology | May 8, 2005 1:12:44 AM

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