FPI Bulletin: Learning from North Korea – Can We Contain a Nuclear Armed Rogue?

April 9, 2013

By FPI Executive Director Christopher J. Griffin

As the world waits to see whether the latest standoff with North Korea will end in all-out war or a restoration of an unsteady armistice, one thing is clear – the United States cannot reliably contain a nuclear North Korea, and there is no reason to believe that we could contain a nuclear Iran.

Although some pundits have argued that American policy toward North Korea is a model for handling a potential Iranian nuclear capability, even a brief survey reveals that although American efforts to contain a nuclear North Korea have thus far avoided another war on the Peninsula, they have incurred great costs.

Since President Clinton first decided to negotiate with North Korea rather than strike its Pyongyang nuclear power plant in 1994, the Kim family regime has developed and fielded ever more capable weapons.  North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, and Pyongyang claims that its February nuclear test involved the type of miniaturized device that could be delivered atop the long-range missile that it successfully launched in December of last year. 

Emboldened by these capabilities, North Korea has conducted attacks without reprisal.  In 2010, the regime sank a South Korean warship and shelled an island not far from Seoul, killing 50 South Korean sailors, marines, and civilians in the process.  The million-dollar question in the current standoff is whether Pyongyang can conduct a repeat performance without triggering a full-scale war. 

Pyongyang has also proliferated its nuclear and missile technology.  In September 2007, Israel bombed a secret plutonium reactor that North Korea built for Bashar al Assad in Syria.  Had the Israelis not destroyed that facility, we might now be wrestling not only with the nightmare of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, but nuclear capabilities as well.

Last year, Iran and North Korea signed a scientific cooperation agreement similar to the one Pyongyang reached with Damascus before building Assad’s secret nuclear reactor.  Iranian engineers likely attended the December nuclear test, in which a uranium-based bomb could have served to validate a design for both regimes’ use.  The missiles that North Korea has repositioned in the last week in preparation for a possible attack?  Pyongyang sold 18 sets of them to Tehran.

North Korea’s behavior could even trigger proliferation among U.S. allies.  Two-thirds of South Koreans now say that Seoul should have its own nuclear weapons program.  The fact that Pyongyang’s nuclear program has caused these jitters in a country in which almost 30,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed is a troubling indicator of how our Middle East allies might respond to an Iranian bomb.

As bad as the security consequences of our failed policies toward North Korea have been, the moral and humanitarian consequences are even worse.

There is no greater human rights catastrophe in the world today than North Korea.  Upwards of a million North Koreans have died as a result of starvation and malnutrition in the past two decades.  As many as 200,000 more languish in concentration camps.  Some tens of thousands of North Korean refugees have been rounded up by Chinese authorities and returned to near-certain death.

North Korea is not a model of successful containment, but a cautionary tale of what ensues once a rogue regime is allowed to get nuclear weapons.

This does not mean that we lack options for dealing with North Korea.  If a war erupts, we would silence Pyongyang’s artillery and missiles relatively quickly – though not before they could inflict a painful toll.  If conflict is avoided, we should continue to invest in our missile defense and strike capabilities, particularly in cooperation with our allies South Korea and Japan.  Another priority is interdicting North Korean trade with Iran and cutting off the regime’s access to the international financial system.

As important, we must prevent Iran from following the trail that North Korea has blazed.  Tehran, taking a page out of the Pyongyang playbook, is now using diplomatic posturing to buy more time to develop its nuclear program.  Time is not on our side, and if the United States does not act decisively to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capability, we may find ourselves in an even more dangerous standoff in the Middle East than the one we face today in Northeast Asia. 

Whether or not we learn the lessons offered by a nuclear North Korea and our failed efforts to contain it, Iran certainly will.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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