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May 06, 2003

NORTH KOREA'S BOMB....Dan Drezner is unhappy about the latest development in the North Korea crisis. The Bush administration has basically said that there's not much they can do about North Korea's nuclear program any more, so we'll just have to try and keep them from exporting any nukes via an embargo, a transparently ridiculous and unworkable plan.

As Dan says, we have three options: do nothing, help Japan get nukes as a counterweight to North Korea, or strike a deal:

The first option relies on very wishful thinking.

The second option would have wide-ranging and unpredictable regional implications.

The third option rewards a totalitarian state that is in many ways worse than Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Everybody agrees that all three options are lousy ones, but surely the third is the least worst? After all, the primary argument against it is moral hazard: if we pay off the North Koreans for dismantling their nuclear program, it just sends a message to other rogue states that they can extort money from us too. Bad precedent, no?

Well, no. How many rogue states are there in the world that would actually set up a hugely expensive nuclear weapons program solely to extort money out of the United States? The idea is nuts. As a purely economic bargain, it makes no sense at all.

On the other hand, building nuclear weapons as a way of deterring an attack by the United States makes all sorts of sense, and the Bush administration's current do-nothing plan is ideally suited to encourage exactly that. Rightly or wrongly, from the point of view of, say, Iran or Pakistan, the only difference between Iraq and North Korea is that Saddam didn't have a bomb and Kim Jong-il does. The lesson is pretty plain.

It would be difficult — maybe impossible — to bargain with North Korea for a truly verifiable end to their weapons program. But it makes no sense at all not to even try. Any clear assessment of the risks shows that the downside is fairly small while the upside is potentially huge. Why not make the effort?

Posted by Kevin Drum at May 6, 2003 08:27 AM | TrackBack


The only reason to choose #1 is if you were planning on getting involved militarily elsewhere in the world. #3 would require a credible military deterrence to back up a breech. Given that some of the criticism on the right of the Iraq involvement was leaving us stretched a bit thin, this allows us to maintain invasion-level forces in a region with a heck of a large number of potential fronts.

The second option is a non-starter. When I left Japan in the mid-90s, it was gradually shaking off its staunch anti-nuke stance. But unless we are willing to trade Taiwan for arming Japan--and even this might not be enough for China, let alone other countries in the region--Japan will remain a non-nuclear state for the foreseeable future.

Posted by: Alex at May 6, 2003 08:51 AM | PERMALINK

How about using the famous Fatal Hug in North Korea? I think that would work, but it would take time. But I'm willing to wait given the alternatives.

Posted by: casadelogo at May 6, 2003 04:11 PM | PERMALINK

Two things. One, North Korea is almost in every way worse than Saddam. By far. Saddam is small potatoes when it comes to totalitarianism and suffering on the scale of Kim.

Second, there is another huge difference between North Korea and Iraq, other than nuclear weapons. Two of them actually. One, a million man army that has more special forces than we have Marines. And two, China as a regional ally.

Posted by: freelixir at May 7, 2003 07:01 AM | PERMALINK

Actually, the third option is not necessarily least worst, because North Korea has proven in the past that agreements mean nothing to them. We had agreements in 1985 and 1994, and both were broken wide open. In exchange for a meaningless promise, North Korea only asks that we completely subsidize their nation's entire food and energy needs, while abandoning South Korea entirely to their predations. Not exactly the deal we'd want, I think. We are better off letting China, Japan and South Korea deal with this, and if necessary creating an embargo to reduce the nuclear proliferation risks.

Posted by: Jeff Medcalf at May 7, 2003 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

What does the second option accomplish? The problem is not retaliation. Most US strategic nukes are SLBMs and thus flexible as to target. If North Korea pulls anything, we can instantly nuke them into oblivion; we don't need to arm Japan for that. The problem is that they are playing chicken anyway. They have a Honda and we have a Mac truck. There is no question they are doomed, but they could do us (including our allies in "us") damage as well. And the damage, though not entailing turning the US into a crater, would be horrendous nonetheless.

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