The North Korean Security Challenge

by PETER HUESSY January 30, 2017

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry says North Korea's nuclear weapons are a serious threat to America, a point on which most American security analysts would certainly agree. In the Washington Post of January 6, 2017 he says the DPRK may have-but in a few years-- an operational capability to launch a nuclear warhead aboard an ICBM missile that could hit the United States. That "window" apparently is enough to persuade Dr. Perry that diplomacy is the proper means of dealing with North Korea.

But as Keith Payne wrote January 22 in the Washington Times, that may be optimistic. As Dr. Payne explained, in "April 2016, Adm. William Gortney, commander of the United States Northern Command, reported to Congress that while the prospective North Korean ICBM, the KN08, ‘remains untested, modeling suggests it could deliver a nuclear payload to much of the Continental United States.'" And more ominously, writes Payne, in September 2016, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence stated that the U.S. must assume that North Korea can reach the United States with a nuclear missile.

Given these threats, we must have a clear-eyed view of what the proper future course of action should be. Perry thinks the United States could have avoided these nuclear dangers if the Bush administration had kept talking with the North Korean government in 2001-2002, implying that more talk now is also the way to go forward. This despite Pyongyang's admission at the time that they had been enriching uranium in blatant contravention of the 1994 Agreed Framework nuclear deal with the United States.

The former Secretary of Defense explains that the North was ready to give up its nuclear weapons if three goals or objectives were taken into account. He says North Korea had nuclear weapons largely for benign reasons, explaining that the North regime wanted to (1) "survive" as a regime (with the Kim Dynasty in control); (2) "gain international respect" and (3) "improve their economy".

Perry believes the three North Korean conditions could have been accommodated as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework which called for ridding the North of its nuclear weapons program. In fact, he says the North was willing to accept a zero nuclear weapons deal but the Bush government "cut off talks". He claims such a proposed deal had been tabled by the Clinton administration and was ready to be completed.  

Let us examine these assumptions. The Kim family regime in North Korea survived without nuclear weapons from 1953-2006. And no one attacked them. Their security was not at risk but their neighbor's security certainly was.

In fact, all during this period, the North acted with near impunity as it sponsored numerous terrorist attacks against the ROK and the United States, while supplying weapons to rogue terror supporting regimes, (Syria and Pakistan), aspiring nuclear powers, (Iran), and guerilla groups, (the Tamil Tigers). This included killing most of the South Korean cabinet in an attack in Burma in 1985, even murdering the national security adviser to the President of South Korea, (my Korean family host and professor in 1969-70 when I attended Yonsei University.)

As an outlaw nation, it is hard to understand how nuclear weapons would gain the DPRK respect, let alone when it's horrible human rights record and prison gulags is taken into account. How do nuclear weapons erase that record? It is unclear how one could bestow international recognition on such a regime, especially meeting its demand that it be recognized as a nuclear armed power.

As for improving its economy, its true the nuclear program has enabled the DPRK to receive many billions of dollars in past assistance in return for promised restrictions on its nuclear program. Unfortunately, those promises were never put into place. Even as billions did flow from the U.S., Japan, and the Republic of Korea, the Pyongyang regime built nuclear weapons, expanded its missile capabilities, and continued to violate human rights across the board.

And past US economic assistance certainly did not lessen the DPRK's quest for more nuclear weapons and more lethal missiles. Precisely the opposite occurred. The North Korean nuclear and missile programs were used as leverage to seek concessions and "bribe" money from the West, even as the North simultaneously kept expanding its nuclear threats.

The funds did not go to "improve the economy" but to enrich privileged classes in North Korea critical to the support of the regime, as well as to the DPRK military. Little got to impoverished North Korean population. In short, North Korea sacrificed its economy for decades in order to keep the Kim family in power. Some have described the Kim family regime as little more than a continued giant shake-down operation run by what is really a crime family masquerading as a country.  

While Perry argues that the Clinton administration had a near nuclear deal with the DPRK in 1999-2000, what kind of "nuclear free" deal could there be with the North that at the time was cheating on the 1994 Agreed Framework by producing nuclear weapons material through reprocessing?

In addition, while U.S. Ambassador Kelly met with officials of the North Korean government in October 2002 it was not to cut off talks with Pyongyang but actually to find a means to implement the flawed 1994 "Agreed Framework". The North Korean delegation admitted at the talks that Pyongyang had broken the terms of the agreement and was in fact producing nuclear weapons fuel from uranium enrichment centrifuges, in contravention of not only the Agreed Framework agreement but also the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In response the Bush administration did not end talks with North Korea. In fact, despite the North Korean bad-faith, the US completed fuel oil deliveries that were currently in route to North Korea. It is true, that subsequently in December 2002 the United States did halt future oil deliveries because of the flagrant violation of the 1994 agreement. It was reasonable position to take.

But it was then the North Koreans-not the United States--announced they were withdrawing from the NPT and no longer wished to talk with the United States.

But far from refusing to talk, however, the Bush administration responded with a proposal to establish a formal process for negotiations and discussions of the DPRK nuclear program. In fact, in January 2003 these new "Six Party" talks were proposed by Washington where the United States, China, Russia, Japan and North and South Korea would begin new nuclear negotiations despite serious North Korean violations of previous nuclear agreements. 

It was the United States that pursued negotiations despite the DPRK having violated-simultaneously-- the IAEA Safeguards agreement, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Inter-Korean Nuclear agreement, and the Agreed Framework.

In addition, despite now some more than two decades of additional diplomacy with North Korea, that country has more nuclear weapons, more missiles and is a graver threat then when negotiations began in 1994. The lack of diplomacy thus can hardly be the reason for North Korea's growing nuclear capability.

Twice Dr. Perry acknowledges that he advocated the use of force to destroy the launch and the plutonium reprocessing facilities in North Korea given the grave danger the North Korean capability represented. But he says that is not the right action today because the risks are too great for South Korea.

Such a strategy means that any tough talk behind the continued pursuit of diplomacy will be seen by the North and its allies as mere bluff. As for the Secretary's call for more economic sanctions, that is all well and good. But sanctions to date have not worked as China seeks too many loopholes and they are often granted in order to secure China's support.

The North Korean government has been offered any number of deals on denuclearizing the peninsula. It has rejected them all for a very important reason. The North wishes to reunify the peninsula under its rule, and by force of arms if necessary. Its nuclear weapons program is designed to eventually force the US forces from the peninsula. That then will set the stage for an invasion of the South by the North, holding hostage American cities with DPRK nuclear weapons to ensure the US won't risk coming back to the defense of the Republic of Korea.

That is one key reason North Korea has nuclear weapons. Not because the US threatens the North but because the North Korean government thinks nuclear weapons are useful instruments of coercive diplomacy and concession seeking.

Now many people may think that North Korea with its limited nuclear arsenal poses no real threat to the United States. But just last year, the now Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF, General Stephen Wilson, said eliminating the Minuteman leg of our nuclear arsenal and its 450 missile silos-as for example Perry proposes to do-- would give North Korea, with just a dozen nuclear weapons, the power to eliminate a very high percent of America's nuclear deterrent capability. In addition, North Korea says President Reagan's former Science Advisor, Dr. William Graham, is gaining the ability to strike the US with an EMP attack which would cripple the US for decades by destroying our electrical grid.

Is it thus really possible that as Perry claims the North Koreans with their nuclear weapons are only seeking our respect despite General Wilson's concern and those of the Congressionally mandated EMP Commission report? Or does Pyongyang's nuclear weapons represent a clear and present danger to the United States and its Pacific allies?

The threat is real. It requires the United States to deploy effective and robust missile defenses, highly capable strategic bombers, an extended modernized nuclear deterrent and protective measures for our electrical grid and infrastructure.

All would help forestall further proliferation while promoting strategic stability and deterrence on the Korean peninsula while protecting the US homeland. Suggesting that simply more talk is the best initial means of protecting America from North Korea's threats is the wrong strategy, based on wrong assumptions, and most likely would lead to the wrong outcome.   

Peter R. Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis and a guest lecturer at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council.


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