I testified in open session before the U.S. Congress in the spring of 1992 that the best estimate of the American intelligence community was that the North Koreans would have a nuclear device within six to 18 months. The worst case, I said then, was that they already had enough fissionable material to make a weapon.
We are now well beyond the time frame of our estimate and it is highly probable that the North Koreans already have one or two nuclear devices. Bluntly put, it is too late to stop the North Korean bomb. Our only option now is to come to grips with that reality and to try to prevent the North from expanding its nuclear arsenal and from selling nuclear material, designs and even weapons to the highest bidders among other rogue states. The Iranians, who have bought North Korean ballistic missiles, and the Libyans likely will be first in line.Diplomatic efforts to date have proceeded on the assumption that the North Koreans were pursuing their nuclear program as a bargaining chip in order to secure economic benefits and diplomatic recognition for their isolated, faltering regime. This assumption has been wrong from the start.
In reality, Kim Il Sung has relentlessly pursued his nuclear weapons program because he believes possessing a bomb is the best means to guarantee the continued existence of his regime.
Kim Il Sung and his generals believe that as long as they have a nuclear weapon, other countries cannot intimidate them militarily or pressure them to go down the fateful path of liberalization.
A nuclear capability gives the North an edge in Asia: They will have to be taken into account in their own right, not just as some withered appendage that will one day revive when joined with the South.
Finally, the development of nuclear weapons likely is seen by the regime as a way to ensure not only the survival of North Korea, but the continuing dominance of Kim's family as well.
It is for these reasons that the carrot-without-the-stick strategy of American diplomacy has failed. There is a myth in the United States that, if you offer foreign miscreants the hope of prosperity and membership in good standing in the family of nations, they will abandon whatever malign objectives they might have. This may be true for some, but not for others - including Iraq and North Korea.
Playing on our well-meaning naivete, it is apparent that the North Koreans have been stalling for time so that they could proceed to develop their nuclear capability.
There are three dangers now that arise from North Korea's likely possession of one or more nuclear devices:
- The most certain danger, as I have noted, is that the regime will sell nuclear material, equipment, weapons designs or even a device itself, just as it has sold the ballistic missiles they developed. North Korea is a determined proliferator-for-cash.
- Another danger over the longer term is that it will provoke a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia. Among the successes of U.S. non-proliferation policy over the years was persuading the Taiwanese and South Koreans to forego nuclear-weapons programs. As the North develops its nuclear capability further and eventually acquires a credible delivery system for the weapons, it will bring great pressure on Taiwan, South Korea and even Japan to build an equivalent deterrent.
- The least likely danger is that the North will actually use the device in Asia - although that possibility would grow in the event of a conventional conflict (if they can figure out how to deliver it).
The current proposals being pressed in the United Nations Security Council by the Clinton Administration - phased sanctions and a voluntary arms trade embargo - will have little or no impact. Sanctions will not do the trick.
North Korea is one of the most autarkic societies in the world, far more so than Iraq or Haiti, for example. The two things it needs most - oil and repatriated hard currency - it gets from three countries - Iran, China and Japan. China and Iran, sources of oil, are rather less than enthusiastic about sanctions, and it is wishful thinking that they might monitor or participate in sanctions. Japan has been reluctant to move to sanctions and, even if it signs up, a big question mark would be its ability to stop the flow of money.
As we come to grips with the reality of a nuclear North Korea, the only option now available is to stop their arsenal from growing any larger. Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft has suggested that the U.S. ought to destroy the reprocessing facility that allows North Korea to make weapons-grade nuclear material using rods removed from nuclear reactors. If this can be done before the reactor rods can cool and the reprocessing cycle can be started, it is the most effective way to prevent the North from going from one or two nuclear devices to six or so, although they will still retain the devices they already have.
However, an attack such as Scowcroft proposes could well provoke a conventional military assault by the North on South Korea, an assault for which neither our forces nor the American people have been adequately prepared. We dithered too long pursuing a course of diplomacy that was not complemented by a buildup of forces that would give clout to our political strategy and put us in a position to take military action if it failed.
Unless the U.S. is willing to rapidly deploy forces in a matter of weeks, as we did in the buildup to the Gulf War, the reprocessing window will close. Once the fuel rods have entered the reprocessing plant, a military attack on that plant would risk at least some nuclear contamination.
Further, a unilateral U.S. attack on a North Korean reprocessing facility would bring opprobrium from across the world, especially in Asia.