Thursday, October 17, 2002

On the National tonight, a U of T analyst called the news that North Korea is either in possession of nuclear weapons or soon will be a "nightmare for the Bush administration". I'm inclined to agree, although I'm not quite sure whether that "Bush administration" rider is really necessary... it's just scary through and through. (The link is to the NY Times, BTW, not said analyst.)

But another official said, "We're not certain that it's been weaponized yet," noting that North Korea has conducted no nuclear testing, which the United States could easily detect.

The idea of a North Korean arsenal immediately alters the delicate nuclear balance in Asia and confronts the Bush administration with two simultaneous crises involving nations developing weapons of mass destruction: one in Iraq, the other on the Korean Peninsula...

At a meeting today of the National Security Council, President Bush and his aides, who have been seeking to rid Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction it is believed to possess — by United Nations mandate if possible, and by force if necessary — decided to handle the North Korean matter through diplomatic channels.
This is a curious decision in some respects, especially for those who have been tracking the relative portrayals of Iraq and North Korea in the popular and elite media for a while. While the notion that Saddam Hussein is irrational is a fairly new one, largely developed as a response to those (like myself) that believe that Saddam is no more or less rational than any other dictator, the idea that the North Korean leadership is irrational or just plain nuts has been pretty consistent throughout the past two decades at the very least, and there's considerable doubt that diplomatic solutions would work for the erratic North Korean government.

They have dispatched two senior officials to China and other nations in the region in hopes of defusing the situation. One senior official said today that North Korea was "belligerent," rather than apologetic, in its declaration and that it would not end its program.
Not surprising; North Korea has precious little to gain from cooperation and contrition on this issue, and belligerence isn't exactly a new thing for Kim Jong Il. The real question is how a nuclear arsenal in the North will affect the relations of the two Koreas and, of course, whether the North will attempt to use its newfound abilities to try to take over the South by force. I don't think that it will, at least not yet; I remember Stratfor clearly laying out the case for North Korea's random behavior being a sophisticated bluff in order to keep its opponents off guard, off balance, and guessing at what the "mad Koreans" will do next, and I'm inclined to agree.

Then again, there's a simpler problem of what to do with the damned things. Any government, whether Korean, Iraqi, or whatever that tried to use nuclear weapons in order to bolster a conventional campaign would runs up against the simple fact that to use a nuclear weapon invites a nuclear response that would make the conventional campaign pointless- the leadership (and decent chunks of the military) would soon find themselves dead. There's little doubt of this; the response would be required for nuclear actors with an interest in the region to retain their credibility, and there's little doubt that world opinion would turn so heavily against any government that dared to perpetrate a "first strike" that any appropriate response would be seen as legitimate and the definition of "appropriate" would be enormously broad. Even tactical theatre weapons would probably provoke a response, although it would more likely consist of massive retaliation by America and its allies as opposed to the eradication of Pyongyang. (Or, say, Baghdad.) If there was a nuclear attack on that retaliation, of course, then we'd get to see what radioactive glass really looked like.

See, that's always been the problem with nuclear weapons: all they can really do is prevent others from either attacking with said weapons or conventionally effecting some sort of "regime change". As long as a government isn't faced with extinction, it's not going to use them, because to use them is to face extinction. They're simply too powerful, too dirty, and too dangerous for any other role and pretty much always have been.

(While it's possible that a government might consider some other goal more valuable than its own continued existence, there are precious few examples of that, if any, and it's safe to say that even if individual leaders wouldn't mind martyring themselves they would want their governments and states to continue on after they were gone. After all, without a people, how can you be a legend?)

The analyst wasn't just talking about the danger of a nuclear North when she mentioned that "nightmare", though, as the article goes on to make clear:

The administration's decision to keep news of the North Korean admission secret for the past 12 days while it fashioned a response appears significant for several reasons. Mr. Bush and his aides have clearly decided to avoid describing the situation as a crisis that requires a military response at a time when dealing with Iraq is the No. 1 priority.

"Imagine if Saddam had done this, that he had admitted — or bluffed — that he has the bomb or is about to have one," one senior official said. "But there's been a decision made that the system can take only so much at one time."

The response also has much to do with the vulnerability of America's allies. Every American administration that has considered military action against North Korea has come to the same conclusion: it is virtually impossible without risking a second Korean war, and the destruction of Seoul in South Korea. North Korea maintains a vast arsenal of conventional weapons and hundreds of thousands of troops.

But dealing with the problem diplomatically will be a tremendous challenge, at a time when the administration is already at odds with many of its closest allies over how to deal with Saddam Hussein.
This is a huge problem for the Bush administration: the rationale for attacking Iraq has just been significantly undermined. Considered in isolation, the case for or against attacking Iraq hasn't really changed, but that matters little in how people are going to see the issue of these two governments, and it presents a powerful dillema for the Bush administration. The fact that the U.S. has to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea leaves Bush doubly screwed: not only does he have to figure out a diplomatic solution to the situation, but any diplomatic solution he does come up with will be thrown back in his face as a challenge to his assertions that an nuclear-armed Iraq will be impossible to deal with diplomatically. If it were any other government then he might be able to argue that Iraq is worse and Saddam is nuttier and therefore somehow different, but this is North Korea we're talking about. The American people wouldn't buy it, let alone the U.N., world opinion, or the world's other democratic governments.

For the sake of South Korea and Southeast Asia, I hope that this situation gets resolved. The resolution, though, is going to damage the credibility of Bush's arguments no matter how hard he tries, and this whole crisis will only further weaken his case for war in front of both the American people and the United Nations Security Council. Politically, this truly is a nightmare scenario.

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