A Progressive Response to North Korea

This piece originally appeared on CampusProgress.org. It outlines the argument set forth by Joe Cirincione, the head of national security and international policy at my day job—the Center for American Progress.

Ask the Expert: North Korea’s Nuclear Test

A progressive response to North Korea’s actions.

By Graham Webster
Thursday October 12, 2006

North Korea’s report of a nuclear test represents a failure of U.S. nonproliferation policy under President George W. Bush. Campus Progress recently interviewed Joe Cirincione, an expert in nuclear proliferation and senior vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. In a separate article on the American Progress website, Cirincione outlines a progressive response to North Korea’s actions. Here, based on additional discussion with Cirincione, are a few quick points and answers to common questions.

How big of a threat is North Korea?

North Korea’s missiles may possibly have the capacity to reach Alaska; they definitely can reach South Korea, China, and Japan, among other countries in the region. But the test of a nuclear explosive device, while a dangerous escalation of North Korea’s nuclear confrontation with the United States and other nations, isn’t a major escalation of the threat to the United States in military terms.

The device that exploded underground had a relatively small yield for a nuclear explosive, and it is likely too large to fit on a missile. North Korea could potentially offer a nuclear bomb to a terrorist group, but the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il knows that any attack—whether direct or through a terrorist supplied by his regime—would, in Cirincione’s words, produce a “swift, certain, and devastating” response by the United States.

How did it come to this?

A few days before North Korea’s claim of a test, Cirincione explained to Campus Progress how the world confronted nuclear proliferation since World War II, and how the Bush administration’s policy undid years of U.S. and international efforts:

“You know, for 50 years Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives have worked together to build this interlocking system of treaties and export control regimes and bilateral agreements that have slowed, if not altogether stopped the spread of these weapons. In 1960 President Kennedy was worried that if we didn’t do something, there would be 15, 20, or 25 countries. But we did something. We designed and implemented the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We put all these other arrangements in place. As result, there are only eight nuclear weapons states today, with possibly North Korea being the ninth. That’s nine too many, but it’s a lot better than 20 or 25.

“When the Bush administration came in, they rejected this whole approach. They wanted to replace negotiations with forced regime change. They said the problem isn’t the weapons, it’s bad guys with the weapons. So they were going to go off and knock-off the bad guys. Iraq was the first implementation of that strategy. It was supposed to be the beginning of a process of serial regime change. First Iraq, then Iran, and then we get to North Korea. That’s the way we settle the problem. It was okay for our friends to have nuclear weapons, like Israel, India, or Pakistan, but it’s not okay for our foes. Who was going to decide? We were. We would pick the good guys and let them have the weapons; we would punish the bad guys.

“The problem with that is obviously this is a very expensive and failed strategy. The mess we made in Iraq is just part of the problem. In the last five years Iran and North Korea have made more progress in their programs than they made in the last 10. This policy has actually accelerated proliferation. It’s convinced other countries that they better get nuclear weapons faster.”

OK, so the administration’s policy failed. We’re getting pretty used to that these days. What can the United States do from its weakened position to contain and roll back North Korea’s potential threat?

According to Cirincione, the United States should start at the U.N. Security Council with a strong condemnation and follow up with multilateral sanctions that hurt North Korea’s leadership and the country’s trade. Then U.S. diplomats should let newly-selected U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who is himself from South Korea, mediate in the international response, as he has already offered to do.

If multilateral pressure doesn’t work, what can the United States do directly?

The United States can strike a deal with North Korea just like the one it made with Libya, which means dealing directly with the Kim regime. If you don’t remember the deal with Libya, the United States gave the country diplomatic recognition, security assurances, and economic incentives in exchange for the total elimination of Libya’s nuclear program. The policy was inexpensive, no one was killed, and it worked—more than we can say for the process of “disarming” Iraq.

What about North Korea’s neighbors? Is this going to create an arms race in the region?

The new Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who before taking office had been somewhat more hawkish than his predecessor, has already said that Japan will not develop nuclear weapons in response to North Korea’s actions. But in a different situation, Japan certainly has the capacity to arm itself.

Indeed, Cirincione told Campus Progress that Japan already has the fuel: ” Japan’s nuclear facilities are under close international inspection. But the problem is that they separated out from their spent fuel, coming out of their reactors, about 10,000 kilograms of plutonium. It takes about five kilograms of plutonium for one nuclear weapon. That’s 2,000 weapons.” Given a more robust threat, Abe could potentially change his mind, and South Korea and Taiwan could decide to seek nuclear capacity as well. It is this very compulsion to keep up with one’s nuclear neighbors that makes an international nonproliferation regime so important.

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