North Korea nuclear crisis

Why all the US hot air on a nuclear North Korea is counterproductive

Doug Bandow says the US can’t halt North Korea’s nuclear programme without risking a catastrophic war and should stick with the containment and deterrence strategies that have worked for the past seven decades instead

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 2:37pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 7:08pm

When asked why it is not possible to deter North Korea, a military midget compared to Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded: “The difference is that with the past behaviour of North Korea, it is clear to us that they would not just use the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. This would become a commercial activity for them.”

In fact, Pyongyang’s past behaviour proves no such thing. Selling conventional weapons is not the same as marketing nuclear technology; dealing with governments is different from supplying non-state actors. Selling nuclear materials is less likely when major powers target such behaviour. Moreover, North Korea’s record is no worse than that of the Soviet Union and China.

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If Pyongyang is inclined to further proliferate, why hasn’t it done so? Kim Jong-un apparently recognises that some actions would be too dangerous to justify even a generous pay-off.

If the US administration fears nuclear sales so much, its emphasis on sanctions is counterproductive. Stepping on the North’s economic windpipe forces the Kim regime to take desperate steps to breathe. Pursue negotiations which leave North Korea a less dangerous way to raise revenue, and it would probably choose that path.

Tillerson’s comments look particularly odd given the US response to Pakistan’s promiscuous proliferation, from which Iran, Libya and North Korea are thought to have benefited. The George W. Bush administration seemed more concerned over Pakistan supporting the Taliban than opening an international Nukes-R-Us. Although Islamabad ended the illicit commerce, the US might still worry more about an unstable Pakistan than North Korea.

The US doesn’t have realistic means to prevent North Korea from remaining a nuclear state. Pyongyang has consistently denied interest in negotiating away its nuclear weapons. And China has refused to risk creating a failed state and turning a reunified Korea into a US military base by strangling North Korea economically.

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Which leaves military action. The result would almost certainly be a serious war in which South Korea, Japan and Guam could be hit with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. The political and economic consequences would radiate around the world.

Containment and deterrence constitute an imperfect strategy. Still, nuclear deterrence has worked remarkably well over the past seven decades. The US can’t accept a nuclear North Korea, said Tillerson. But without risking a catastrophic war, it can’t stop a nuclear North Korea either. Washington shouldn’t blow up the peninsula after helping to keep the peace for more than 64 years.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow

at the Cato Institute