North Korea and the Risks of Coercive Nonproliferation, Cato Foreign Policy Briefing | Treaty On The Non Proliferation Of Nuclear Weapons | International Politics

Executive Summary North Korea's abrupt withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) understandably alarms the United States, but proposals by some U.S. policy experts to launch preemptive military strikes are reckless. That step could easily trigger a major war on the Korean peninsula, engulfing the 36,000 U.S. troops stationed there and causing the deaths of tens of thousands of Koreans. Similar proposals for coercive nonproliferation when the Soviet Union and China joined the global nuclear-weapons club were wisely rejected. Instead of resorting to high-risk military options, Washington should work with Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul to draw North Korea into the web of international diplomatic and economic relations and persuade Pyongyang to honor its commitments to the NPT. The current crisis also underscores the urgent need to withdraw all U.S. military personnel from South Korea. There are no U.S. security interests at stake in Korea that are important enough to risk making American soldiers nuclear hostages.
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  Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing No. 24:North Korea and the Risks of CoerciveNonproliferation May 4, 1993Doug BandowDoug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Reagan, he is co-editor of  The U.S.-South Korean Alliance: Time for a Change (Transaction, 1992). Executive Summary North Korea's abrupt withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) understandably alarms the UnitedStates, but proposals by some U.S. policy experts to launch preemptive military strikes are reckless. That step couldeasily trigger a major war on the Korean peninsula, engulfing the 36,000 U.S. troops stationed there and causing thedeaths of tens of thousands of Koreans. Similar proposals for coercive nonproliferation when the Soviet Union andChina joined the global nuclear-weapons club were wisely rejected.Instead of resorting to high-risk military options, Washington should work with Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul to drawNorth Korea into the web of international diplomatic and economic relations and persuade Pyongyang to honor itscommitments to the NPT. The current crisis also underscores the urgent need to withdraw all U.S. military personnelfrom South Korea. There are no U.S. security interests at stake in Korea that are important enough to risk makingAmerican soldiers nuclear hostages. Introduction After rejecting demands from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to allow inspection of two suspectednuclear facilities, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is preparing to withdraw from the NuclearNonproliferation Treaty (NPT). As a result, fears of a North Korean nuclear bomb, which had receded as Pyongyangallowed a half dozen IAEA inspections over the past year, have now risen to a fever pitch. Although the Clintonadministration has so far reacted with circumspection, demands for a military response are growing. There is no easysolution to the threat of a nuclear DPRK, but precipitous U.S. action could spark a new war that would endanger, notonly the 36,000 American service personnel presently stationed on the Korean peninsula, but millions of SouthKoreans as well. Bloody History The Korean peninsula, like Europe, was divided between the United States and the USSR after World War II. Plans forreunification collapsed amidst worsening Cold War tensions, and the two competing Korean states were soon at war.That inconclusive conflict was followed by a bitter mini- cold war that lasted nearly four decades. By the end of the1980s, however, the North found itself increasingly isolated internationally and falling ever further behind theRepublic of Korea (ROK) economically. The violent collapse of monarchical communism in Ceausescu's Romania andWest Germany's absorption of communist East Germany proved particularly unsettling for the retrograde Stalinistregime in Pyongyang. With the cutoff of subsidized trade by China and Russia, even officials of the DPRK could nolonger deny their nation's economic distress. By December 1991 officials of the two Koreas had held several meetings,  South Korean businessmen were heading north to invest, and the two governments had approved a nonaggression pactand agreed to allow mutual inspections for nuclear weapons. The Korean political winter, it seemed, was over.But extensive saber rattling occurred in the North during the recent joint U.S.-ROK Team Spirit military exercises, andthe Central Intelligence Agency warns that the North may have enough plutonium to develop one or two nuclearweapons. The ROK has suspended economic activities in the DPRK, Japan and the United States have backed awayfrom discussions about improving relations with Pyongyang, and some Western analysts are seriously calling for war--immediately. Bitter Competition Since their creation, the two Koreas have competed bitterly in the economic, military, and political arenas. TheDPRK's economic edge disappeared during the 1960s as Pyongyang's rigid command economy stagnated and theSouth's generally capitalist economy began to soar. Seoul outmaneuvered its rival in the political and diplomaticrealms as well during the following decade. By the 1980s the game between the two states was essentially over: theSouth was twice as populous, dramatically more prosperous, a serious player in international economic andtechnological markets, and one of the globe's leading trading nations. Only on the military front did Pyongyang retaina lead, largely reflecting the fact that America's security guarantee, then backed by a 43,000-man tripwire, madeadditional defense spending by the ROK unnecessary. As early as the 1980s there was little justification formaintaining the so-called mutual defense treaty. South Korea was capable of overtaking the North's militarycapabilities with only modest increases in defense expenditures--had Seoul chosen to do so.[1]Today the gap between the two nations is even wider. The South's gross national product is estimated to be 12 timesthat of its northern rival. Thus, North Korea would have to devote nearly its entire national production to match anexpenditure by Seoul of little more than 8 percent of its GNP. (Seoul currently devotes approximately 5 percent of GNP to the military.) Pyongyang lacks the hard currency necessary to buy spare parts for its plentiful tanks and otherweapons, which probably contributes to the large number of broken-down military trucks visitors see throughout thecapital city and its environs. The readiness and training of the DPRK forces is questionable: the regime gives its pilotslittle time in the air, for instance. The North's domestic transportation infrastructure is primitive and in disrepair, manymilitary personnel spend their time performing public-works tasks, and the DPRK has apparently never conducted acombined arms exercise. Although a sudden onslaught by the North's million-man military might succeed in capturingor destroying Seoul, which lies just 30 miles south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), even many South Koreananalysts now discount the likelihood of a northern invasion. The North's Nuclear Option Given Pyongyang's mounting economic and diplomatic failures, and the looming prospect of the South's reachingparity in conventional military capability, North Korea's only potential trump card is the development of a nuclearweapon. Pyongyang apparently has had a program under way for some time. Since the DPRK began its efforts whenthe United States still maintained tactical nuclear weapons in the South--which were withdrawn only in late 1991--it ispossible that Pyongyang wanted the bomb primarily as a defensive weapon, although the goal of nuclear blackmail of neighboring countries cannot be ruled out. As the North's allies, the former USSR and more recently China, haveeffectively defected, recognizing Seoul over the DPRK's objections, dictator Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, theelder Kim's anointed successor, have probably come to believe even more strongly that an atomic bomb is a, andperhaps the only, means of ensuring the regime's survival, whether against a military attack by the South or moregeneral political pressure. Explained defector Ko Young Hwan in 1991, a nuclear weapon was viewed by officials inthe North as the last means they can resort to to protect their system. [2]That perception is quite plausible. After all, only the threat of a North Korean bomb has caused such powers as Japanand the United States to treat the DPRK seriously. The mere whisper of a project, however limited, has allowed theNorth to manipulate not only its antagonists but also its allies, including China, that do not want Pyongyang to possessa bomb. The well-publicized, almost hysterical fear of Pyongyang's nuclear efforts has probably encouraged theregime to push ahead.North Korea's nuclear-weapons program appears to be centered at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. At that  site are a 30-megawatt reactor and a reprocessing facility; the North also is constructing a 200-megawatt reactor thatcould produce an estimated 100 pounds of plutonium a year once it is operational. More worrisome is the possibilitythat the DPRK also has underground nuclear facilities, as alleged by defector Ko Young Hwan.However, while South Korean defense officials and American newspaper columnists were calling for a preemptivemilitary strike in the summer and fall of 1991, Pyongyang finalized an inspection agreement under the NPT, which ithad signed in 1985. The North seemed prepared to go even further in December 1991, signing a bilateral agreementwith the ROK that provided for more extensive examinations in both North and South. Hope for a real dÇtentebetween the two bitter enemies blossomed.Even though the two Koreas subsequently deadlocked over inspection procedures, progress was made on other fronts:in particular, the IAEA made its first visit to the North in early 1992 and subsequently conducted six examinations of North Korean nuclear facilities. The agency's conclusions were encouraging if not definitive: the DPRK had producedsome plutonium, but it did not seem to have an effective ongoing nuclear program. Although the IAEA was skepticalof some of Pyongyang's explanations of the purpose of its apparent reprocessing facility, the North took IAEAinvestigators to sites not on the formal inspection list and offered to allow the agency to make special visits ondemand. As a result, last November Ronald Lehman, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, reversed hisearlier pessimistic assessment of the North's nuclear efforts when he stated that international efforts had stopped theDPRK's program. While the future nevertheless remained uncertain, in 2 years Pyongyang had moved further towardnormal participation in international affairs than it had in the previous 40. Equally important, economic pressure forreform continued to mount with China's announcement that it was ending its barter trade with the North.On the IAEA's latest visit to North Korea in January 1993, however, the DPRK refused access to two possible nuclear-waste depositories. North Korea tied its refusal to the ongoing Team Spirit military exercises in the South, which havesince ceased. When the IAEA made an unprecedented demand for a special inspection of the two sites, Pyongyangannounced that it was withdrawing from the NPT and abrogated the inspection agreement. As the IAEA's March 31deadline for opening the two sites approached, Secretary of State Warren Christopher told a House appropriationssubcommittee, There will be enforcement action taken within the U.N. Security Council. [3] He focused on economicsanctions, though there was no guarantee that such measures would have much effect on the DPRK's already isolatedeconomy. And UN action requires the acquiescence of China, long the North's closest ally, which says that it will notendorse coercive measures against Pyongyang. We support patient consultations to reach an appropriate solution, explained Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen. If the matter goes before the Security Council, that will onlycomplicate things. [4]More ominous, discussions of military remedies are being heard again in the United States. Argues columnist PaulGreenberg, America and its allies should be readying an Israel-style strike against North Korean facilities now. [5]Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy takes a similar position. He contends that the choice--as with Iraqtwo-and-a-half years ago--is not between possibly going to war with North Korea and not going to war. Rather, it is aquestion of risking going to war now, when U.S. military capabilities are relatively strong and North Korean nuclearforces are minimal (or not yet completed), rather than later when such advantageous conditions will almost surely notexist. [6] House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) has called for destroying theNorth Korean facilities even though, he admits, There is no question we would have to be prepared to go to war. [7] Assessing North Korean Intentions What makes the present situation so difficult is that we know neither the North's capabilities nor its intentions.Naturally, Pyongyang's official explanation is that it was forced into its present course by the United States and that theDPRK is merely defending its socialist system. [8]In private conversations, DPRK diplomats with the United Nations in New York argue that the facilities at issue areconventional military, not nuclear, and are therefore exempt from the inspection regime, and that in making itsdemands the IAEA is yielding to pressure from Washington. Would America have opened its bases under similarcircumstances? they ask. Their government, they say, remains committed to three-way talks with the United States andthe ROK about nuclear inspections on the peninsula and is willing to return to the NPT if such talks get under way.  North Korean diplomats also say they are ready to discuss the two sites with the IAEA if it acts independently, notunder U.S. pressure, though they do not guarantee that Pyongyang will ultimately allow inspections of thosefacilities.[9] The North puts particular emphasis on ending joint U.S.-ROK military exercises, an issue that clearlyagitated Northern officials whom I met in Pyongyang in August 1992.What is really going on? CIA director R. James Woolsey argues that an obvious reason for the standoff is that NorthKorea has something significant to hide. [10] But, while certainly plausible, that is not the only possible interpretation.There are at least four possible causes of Pyongyang's present course. The first and most threatening is the Woolseythesis, that the North has a nuclear-develop-ment program under way and is, and always has been, committed tobuilding a bomb. According to that scenario, Kim Il Sung thought he could gain the diplomatic benefits of acceptingIAEA inspections while shielding his nuclear efforts from the agency's scrutiny. When the inspectors got too close, hewithdrew from the NPT.There are other possibilities, however, which presumably explain why China is predicting that the North willeventually rejoin the NPT.[11] For instance, the DPRK may have had a nuclear program under way but decided twoyears ago to drop it in exchange for expected benefits: diplomatic recognition by Japan and the United States, aid fromthe ROK and Japan, and investment from and trade with Seoul and the United States. In a move perhaps triggered bythe 1993 Team Spirit exercises, however, more hard-line elements may have demanded a change in policy, contendingthat all the DPRK had received for its genuinely more conciliatory course were ever-escalating demands and thattherefore Pyongyang should just say no. That scenario differs significantly from the first in that it suggests that theNorth may yet be convinced to eschew a nuclear capability.Possibility number three is that a frustrated North is playing the nuclear card, irrespective of the actual state of itsprogram, in an attempt to wring more concessions from the United States, the ROK, and Japan. Since those nationshave shown that nothing else gets their attention, the DPRK may believe that it has to revive the nuclear threat fromtime to time.Finally, the fourth scenario is that North Korea's new intransigence reflects an effort by heir apparent Kim Jong Il toshore up his rather thin military credentials by proving that he will protect the defense establishment's, and his nation's,interests. If he gains foreign concessions as a result, he could then return to the NPT from a strengthened politicalposition.Unfortunately, it is impossible to know which of those scenarios is accurate. The ultrasecretive nature of Kim'stotalitarian political system makes any evaluation purely speculative. The critical point, however, is that only the firstscenario represents a serious problem to which there is no diplomatic solution. The situations presented by the otherthree scenarios are at least theoretically solvable by negotiation, however much today's enthusiasts of the startbombing school may hate that course. Groping toward a Peaceful Solution Although a matter of great concern, the North's withdrawal from the NPT poses no immediate crisis. There is nocredible evidence that the DPRK currently possesses a bomb; many U.S. officials acknowledge that the North,assuming that it is committed to building a bomb, still may lack enough plutonium to produce even one weapon, letalone several. In the longer term, the possibility that Pyongyang might use nuclear arms to blackmail the ROK andother East Asian neighbors is worrisome. Nevertheless, a small arsenal would be more useful as a guarantee of thesurvival of the North Korean state and as political leverage than as offensive weapons against the ROK and otherstates in the region. The most important impact of a North Korean bomb ultimately might be to drive both the ROKand Japan to obtain their own nuclear arsenals.That is an unpleasant prospect, certainly, but not one that warrants war now, especially without any serious attempt toresolve the issue before beginning bombing. Proposals to strike militarily are foolhardy. An attack would be unlikely toeliminate the North's nuclear program; the two sites from which the DPRK has barred inspectors are suspected wastesites, not production facilities. If the latter exist, and we apparently do not know that they do, they are probably burieddeep underground somewhere, and we have no way of destroying them unless we are willing to use nuclear weapons.A meaningless strike at unimportant installations might actually encourage the regime to persevere with its presumed
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