Korean Nuclear Misperceptions

by PETER HUESSY July 6, 2017

The President of the Republic of Korea met with President Donald Trump last week. Very high on the agenda of the two President's was the threat posed by North Korea's increasingly aggressive and bellicose actions in the region, including the testing of nuclear weapons and the extensive test launch of dozens of ballistic missiles off all ranges including a most recent test of ICBM caliber.

China, North Korea, the New York Time, the Wilson Center and a number of former high ranking US government officials, are pushing very hard for a freeze on North Korean missile testing and nuclear weapons tests as a prelude to unconditional "negotiations" with the United States. Such a "deal" would probably also include an end to "reciprocal" military exercises between the United States and the Republic of Korea and an end to our missile defense deployments.

Such calls for diplomacy and negotiation are almost universally put forward but relying on a series of common assumptions that make such an approach-diplomacy-seem the only available means to "resolve" the "tensions" in the region, and eventually it is assumed lead to the denuclearization of North Korea. In short, the proposed remedy relies on "cooked diplomacy" to guide the reader to a pre-ordained conclusion.

Now these assumptions are widely held by the American foreign policy establishment. In the media, they are repeated endlessly and due to their sheer prevalence have taken on an appearance of being grounded in sound thinking and sensible strategy.

But what if such assumptions, far from helping rid the DPRK of its nuclear weapons, will actually make the elimination of the North Korean nuclear program, let alone its ballistic missile arsenal, next to impossible to achieve?. In fact, what if in accepting these assumptions as the basis for negotiations, we are increasing the barrier to peace in the region markedly and falling into a trap of our own making?

Let us examine these eight famous assumptions and see where they lead us.

First, it is assumed China does not want the North Korean nuclear program to continue and has not supported it either monetarily or technologically.

Second, it is also assumed North Korea fears a United States invasion and thus had to secure a deterrent of nuclear weapons to stop us.

Third, it is assumed that since the ruling dictators Gadhaffi and Hussein in Libya and Iraq, respectively, in 2012 and 2003, did not have nuclear weapons, they were subsequently attacked by the United States, implying that of course North Korea needs nuclear weapons to survive and prevent a possible United States attack.

Fourth, if China put too much economic pressure on North Korea, the country could collapse and in the resulting chaos, the nukes belonging to the DPRK could proliferate and be lost, hardly an outcome anyone wishes. So don't put too much pressure on China.

Fifth, it is assumed any use of military power against the DPRK by the United States is useless, because it will probably automatically result in a wholesale war on the peninsula with subsequent casualties reaching in the millions.

Sixth, a freeze on North Korean missile testing is imperative because Pyongyang has not yet developed an ICBM capability to reach the United States. If a testing freeze is put forward, maybe no such ICBM capability will emerge.

Seventh, economic sanctions have been tried and don't work. But ironically if they were "really" tried involving China, there would be a trade war, making them useless.

And finally eighth, negotiations are really possible to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, and here the United States must "show good faith". Although for the past quarter century such talks have not prevented an arsenal of nuclear weapons from being produced by North Korea along with ballistic missiles of all kinds, negotiations will work because they are the only available option.

Are these assumptions wrongheaded? What are the facts then?

Here is my perspective.

First, it has to be recognized as Tom Reed explains in his "The Nuclear Express", China has been a top proliferator of nuclear weapons technology to rogue regimes, including Pakistan, Iran, Libya and North Korea. This was first largely but not exclusively through the Khan network in Pakistan. Gordon Chang's new study details additional Chinese support as well.  

It may indeed be true that elements in China's leadership understand a North Korean nuclear program might spur Japan (and the ROK) to build its own nuclear arsenal. This would seem to mitigate against Chinese support for the DPRK nuclear weapons program. On the other hand, if the United States reiterates in a sufficiently strong manner that our extended deterrent guarantees Japan's security, we make a Japanese nuclear program largely unnecessary and unlikely even in the face of a DPRK nuclear threat. In this way, China can have its cake (a DPRK nuclear threat) and eat it too, (no Japanese nuclear break-out).

It could very well be, on the other hand, that China also sees a North Korean nuclear weapons program as a means of sowing division between the USA and the ROK (which it has) as well as securing goodies for the North Korean regime, (that China does not have to provide) which of course to date now has reached into the billions of dollars.

Will such a Chinese-DPRK strategy continue to work or might it backfire? Would it prompt a Japanese or South Korean nuclear development? Who knows but for now China appears to want to maintain that nuclear coercive lever in the hands of a Kim led totalitarian regime and use it over time to split the US-ROK alliance and eventually force the United States out of the western Pacific.

Second, North Korea does not fear a US invasion. It's a great excuse for the North to repeatedly use to justify building nuclear weapons. And every time the media and its NGO pals reference this North Korean "fear", they give credence to this convenient but bogus North Korean rationale.

For nearly seventy years since the Korean War, the North has with impunity committed aggression and terror attacks against the United States and the Republic of Korea. The North threatens the ROK and Japan and the United States, not the other way around. Loose talk about a hypothetical US attack against the North-- which has not happened---must be contrasted with the multiple real DPRK attacks against the ROK and the USA forces in the region over the past 65 years. Our forces are in the ROK to deter, not invade, the DPRK.

Third, historically, we largely left Saddam and Gaddafi alone. But when they committed acts of aggression, including the invasion of Kuwait, or terrorism such as the attacks on US Naval warships in the Gulf of Sidra, bombing a disco in Germany frequented by American servicemen and women, or blowing a Pan Am commercial jet out of the sky over Lockerbie,  respectively, the United States took appropriate and justified military action.

And in 2003 we simply enforced some 23 UN resolutions demanding that Iraq cease its aggression and terrorism.

And in 2006 when Gaddafi turned in his missile and WMD program, we worked with Libya-unsuccessfully-- to reintegrate them into the international community and build a better, more peaceful relationship. We didn't invade.

Looked at another way. There are nearly 190 countries without nuclear weapons, and for most of them the United States has relatively peaceful relations. The idea that North Korea needs nuclear weapons to deter the big bad Americans is just another anti-American fairy tale. It places the blame on the United States for what is without question North Korean perfidy. And unfortunately, in the process, it lets North Korea echo such views and justify the very nuclear and missile proliferation the US is blamed for.

Fourth, the idea that China fears the economic collapse of North Korea is actually understandable, if such a collapse was a real possibility.

But the regime in the North would hardly risk being "run out of town" by its own military, for example, if economic pressures so worsened conditions that the military or any entity powerful enough to take on the Kim family would even think of taking action to depose the regime.

If the North seriously is threatened by the United States, as it claims and many American analysts also assume, then an end to the American threat removes any justification for nuclear weapons in the hands of the DPRK. The US and the ROK could sign a peace treaty once the North agrees to give up its nuclear weapons and its aggression against the ROK.

Will the North do so? Of course not, which completely turns upside down the DPRK rationale for its nuclear weapons.

Fifth, it is clear the North does not subscribe to the idea that the use of any military force will automatically result in wholesale war on the peninsula. The North has been using military action against the ROK and the United States for half a century with relatively few and then only mild responses and then largely from the ROK.

The DPRK helps or has helped arm Syria, Hamas, the Yemeni rebels, Cuba and Iran, and previously the terrorists Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, yet the United States is the country being warned about using force? 

Israel took out the Syrian reactor built by North Koreans still in residence. There was no response from Syria or North Korea. In fact silence.

Taking any military action off the table simply guarantees that the North Korean regime will feel it remains in a sanctuary, free to continue its aggressive plans and implement its long term strategy of reunifying the Korean peninsula by force under its communist rule.

Sixth, while a freeze on testing of missiles and nuclear weapons has a superficial appeal, it has no chance of ending the North Korean programs. The freeze will inevitably be temporary. It will require the US to end its military exercises with the ROK military, which of course is completely inconsistent with having a deterrent force in South Korea in the first place.

It will substitute a freeze cementing in a current North Korean nuclear arsenal in return for a future "promised" elimination strategy that will probably never materialize or be adopted. If there is an urgency to deal with this problem, what is the point of delaying the process by adopting an unnecessary and foolish bumper sticker-like idea in the "freeze" which simply will prolong the time during which the DPRK has nuclear weapons?

As for the idea that a freeze would stop the North from securing an ICBM capability, they already can range the United States with a ballistic missile says the head of the US Strategic Command General John Hyten. The general also says the North can miniaturize nuclear warheads. That horse is out of the barn. The recent DPRK test of what is described by most parties as an ICBM class missile confirms a freeze is a nice slogan but without substance.

Seventh, sanctions on North Korea have to date in the scheme of things been relatively mild. The UN sanctions have also let China largely off the hook---coal shipments to China are now deemed "humanitarian" under the UN rules, and as such give the lie to the idea that sanctions are meant to actually change North Korean military activity.

It may indeed be true that only serious sanctions against China will have an effect on China-DPRK trade and assistance and thus ultimately on DPRK behavior. But here we are universally warned not to even consider such a sanctions effort because it will result in according to the New York Times, "a trade war".

That assertion requires another assumption and that is China would rather keep the North Korean nuclear and missile programs intact than actually put serious economic pressure on the regime to get rid of them, pressure that could result in serious economic problems in Pyongyang. An oil cut off comes to mind

But if the North doesn't ultimately wish to end its nuclear program even under enormous economic strain, then it is obvious there is no alternative package of lesser incentives that would successfully work to eliminate their nuclear weapons. If strong pressure won't be tried because it will not work, why would weak pressure do the trick?

Finally, we come to the eighth point and that is the United States must show "good faith" to begin negotiations with the DPRK, as a letter from former Secretary of Defense William Perry and other luminaries proposed.

What balderdash.

Our good faith has been shown in the 35,000 Americans that perished defending freedom in the Republic of Korea during the Korean War. And by the tens of thousands of American soldiers that have since served in the United States military in the Republic of Korea with our Korean brothers and sisters. And the thousands of soldiers from the other partners in the UN Command that defended the Republic of Korea, but also especially by the millions of South Korean people that either perished in the horrible war of aggression by the North in 1950, or served honorably in their country's military to protect the freedom for the Republic of Korea secured in 1953 once again.

Negotiations with North Korea have enriched the regime and allowed it time to develop dozens of nuclear weapons and hundreds of ballistic missiles with which to threaten the region and the Pacific and the United States.

There are alternatives.

Counter proliferation efforts like using the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Interdicting shipments of oil and industrial supplies to North Korea.

Deploying major missile defenses such as THAAD and Aegis ashore in the region.

Serious banking sanctions such as those that would shut off the Chinese pipeline of money and goods to North Korea.

Signaling our ability to carry out if required significant and deadly air and missile strikes against critical DPRK military facilities, underscoring that military aggression by the North will not be successful.

In short, an all-compass strategy to either change the regime's mind or change the regime itself.

(Peter Huessy is an expert on Western Pacific affairs, having spent 1969-70 studying in the Republic of Korea at Yonsei University and in 1973-5 at the Columbia University School of International Affairs and East Asian Institute . He is both President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a Potomac, Maryland national security analysis company, as well as Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association. This essay does not reflect the views of any of his affiliated institutions. )

Peter R. Huessy is Director for Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as well as President of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He is also a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy and formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council and JINSA.


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