Time to Get Tough on North Korea

Fundamental debates and challenges arise in periods of transition, such as the current leadership changes in South Korea, Japan and China. So it is with the North Korean nuclear threat.

Pyongyang warned on January 25 that it would conduct a high-level nuclear test targeted at the United States. While few people believe North Korea could attack the US in the foreseeable future, there was a time when the US considered a limited attack on North Korea as a way to halt the regime's nuclear ambitions.

In the summer of 1994, concern was rising about the North's nuclear weapons program. As a presidential national security aide in Seoul at the time, I knew the US could easily blockade North Korean ports and enforce a no-fly zone in response, if it chose to do so. But regardless of the worries expressed by South Korean decision-makers, the administration of President Bill Clinton in Washington actually laid out a roadmap to launch a surgical attack on the North Korean nuclear facilities in Yongbyon.

Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former undersecretary of state Arnold Kanter in the George H. W. Bush administration had advocated a US military strike in a Washington Post op-ed piece on June 15 that year, saying "The stakes could hardly be higher. The time for temporizing is over."

Arguably, the American decision-makers would have launched the strike only if they had thought that their military mission could terminate the life of the regime on acceptable terms. Yet, the options were estimated to be incapable of eliminating the dangers of escalation, apparently leading to an all-out (nuclear) war on the peninsula.

Together with former US president Jimmy Carter's hastily-prepared unofficial visit to North Korea in order to find a negotiated solution to the nuclear impasse, the South Korean government's strong opposition to the planned strike eventually helped dampen the catastrophe-provoking option in a dramatic manner.

The security dilemma facing the U.S. and South Korea is not the same as that in 1994. North Korea has tested its nuclear weapons program in 2006 and 2009, respectively. The United States has underestimated the North's nuclear strength. In 2008, according to The New York Times, some in the US intelligence community assessed that North Korea could have 12 or more weapons, which, in their rough judgment, might be manageable.

It demands however that we now view the north from other angles entirely. Inevitably, new technology will lead to new concepts and strategies by providing a new range of options. And whether North Korea possesses more than 12 nuclear weapons or less than five, the danger the country could leak its technology and nuclear materials to a third party is essentially the same.

I find it almost impossible to believe North Korea will discard its nuclear ambitions without conditions. A growing number of South Korean pundits assume that South Korea has no other choice but to get along with the reality of a North Korea with nukes, somewhat analogous to the idea that people living with the AIDS virus could be securely taken care of.

In the same vein, South Korean analysts think that even after the sanctions resolution, Washington and Pyongyang will be forced to the negotiating table despite the fact that denuclearizing North Korea has been no more successful than pushing human rights in North Korea. In particular, since South Korean generals have never undergone wars in decades, they may not know how to interpret what North Korea is doing. Knowing crises can lead to inadvertent war impels decision makers to avoid confrontation. The 2010 bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island is such an example, with South Korean decision makers reluctant to escalate. When North Korea fired dozens of shells at Yeonpyeong, according to The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea President Lee Myung-bak ordered his Air Forces generals to counterattack - to no avail. The generals reportedly expressed objections to expanding the crisis to war under the pretext of the rules of engagement between South Korea and the US, which requires 'consultation' with the US. In addition, North Korea might have assumed that the US was unlikely to endorse retaliation for fear of high political costs for the White House on the one hand and on the other, of sparking a de facto war on a peninsula where over 20,000 American military personnel are stationed.

North Korea's strategy is negotiation after the beginning of a third nuclear test, even though direct talks with the US would not bear significant fruit. Even with all the additional sanctions, the Kim dynasty has shown no tangible change in its policies and attitudes. Much to Seoul's and Washington's disappointment, the pressure has failed to soften Pyongyang's provocations. North Korea has to date not behaved in a rational manner by adjusting itself to global rules and norms. Most experts know that North Korea is a starving rat with nuclear teeth. Anyone who claims not to know that is either a far left-wing nutcase or a Dr. Strangelove.

So I'm urging policy-makers in Seoul and Washington to think more seriously that a third nuclear test will likely pose a far higher risk of putting Northeast Asia into unpredictable danger in terms of its upgraded technology instead of judging whether the North is serious about negotiating. Amid the long stalemate of the six-party talks over disagreement over conditions for the next encounter, a third test, if successful, would be literally the game changer, dwarfing the conventional weapons South Korea and Japan possess.

Indeed, there were already enough danger signs in South Korea to raise serious doubts over the false assumption that the Obama administration's 'strategic patience' would prevail. The much-debated strategic patience, after all, became a plaque that simply gathered dust in a closet, allowing North Korea to exercise its clandestine nuclear muscle. Furthermore, the sad truth is that North Korea has not yet considered the United Nations Security Council resolutions (1718, 1874, and 2087) as its redlines. Surprisingly, one of the world's poorest countries has been astute at finding loopholes in the sanctions. It thus is wrong for a U.S. diplomat to point out allegedly that "The North Koreans do not respond to pressure. But without pressure they do not respond."

Surviving on a diet of anti-Americanism, North Korea has a long history of being willing to risk referral of its nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council. Moreover, Pyongyang is unlikely to abandon its belief system. The first-term Obama administration chose the wrong policies over the previous four years. It is apparent that North Korea will go where it is expected to if external forces take their scheduled course. Now that the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, seems to compensate for his lack of experience with brashness, it's only natural that the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, should take a U-turn in the US's policy.

A few observers both inside and outside the government began to predict cautiously that a limited attack on North Korea, which has already walked out of the non-proliferation treaty, could delay North Korea's nuclear program. On cue, a conservative U.S. expert recently asserted that "The U.S. should make clear to North Korea--and its principal defender, China-- that another nuclear test would doom nascent inter-Korean reconciliation and lead to further allied armed military measures that neither Pyongyang nor Beijing wants," referring to Chapter VII, Article 42, of the U.N. Charter, which allows for enforcement by military means. The Asia watcher seems to think that deterrence by punishment is unavoidable and deterrence by denial can no longer work.

A military option, albeit dangerous and costly, might be 'seriously and comprehensively discussed' between Washington and Beijing, only if their mutual confidence and national interest are met over the peace and stability of the peninsula in the wake of the limited strike. Above all, there is no Achilles' heel of the U.S. for North Korea, like oil and the Strait of Hormuz in the Iranian case.

The U.S. should stop telling North Korea that a third nuclear test "only will serve to further Pyongyang's isolation." If it could have, it would have done so already. Instead, all the world's superpower has to do is punish North Korea more quickly than Pyongyang can move, in strategic collaboration with China as a crisis manager. The only post-cold war rival of the US, China is a fulcrum in deterring North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. Assuming that the US and China, the main movers of tough sanctions against North Korea, should immediately pull on the ends of the rope in which they already tied a knot of sanctions against North Korea in the likely event of the nuclear test, Chinese collaboration is absolutely essential.

North Korea's third nuclear test would make the Xi Jinping administration in China feel prone to changing the longstanding status quo on the Korean peninsula. That said, Xi and Chinese officials who are under grave international or domestic pressures may come to feel that bellicosity is necessary. Just as the US made concessions to Russia for Iran sanctions, so the Obama administration needs to give China some concessions in return for its cooperation in sanctioning North Korea, rather than providing the regime with an economic assistance. Such concessions could include lifting restrictions on high-tech exports to China and, regardless of the so-called 'pivot to Asia,' defending a low-profile stance on China's territorial disputes in Asia rather than displaying a show of American support for its long-time ally, Japan.

As Henry Kissinger put it in his book On China, the Chinese play go (wei ch'i). Go is about incremental gains. Small gains gradually accumulate, until one side has a decisive advantage. In short, providing that although there are no tangible signs at the moment that China's traditional wait-and-see approach may be shifting the US has no choice but to go along.

(Lee Byng-chul is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel)