Over the last few months, North Korea has severely tested the world’s patience. It conducted its third nuclear test, canceled the armistice ending the Korean War, threatened the US with nuclear ruin, warned foreigners to leave the country because war was imminent, cut its hotline with South Korea, and readied a missile for firing. This shrill, irrational behavior seems to confirm the conventional wisdom that North Korea is a rogue nation, run by a nut job – end of story. In that perspective, there is little we can do other than hope that our military power deters them from following through on their hair-brained threats. While there is truth in that perspective, it pays to examine some other hypotheses which, if true, would give us more effective options for reducing the risk of a needless war.
1. North Korea may be taking a page from our nuclear deterrence playbook.The 1995 USSTRATCOM report “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence” states: “it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control’ can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.”
2. North Korea may fear that our current military exercises with South Korea are merely a disguise for a sneak attack. Moving the troops and hardware needed for an invasion gives the intended victim time to prepare its defenses. Disguising an invasion as a war game cloaks such maneuvers and maintains an element of surprise. North Korea is probably aware that just such a tactic was used by the US military during the Cuban Missile Crisis. PHIBRIGLEX-62 was a major amphibious war exercise designed to overthrow a fictitious dictator named Ortsac – Castro spelled backward. When the crisis erupted, PHIBRIGLEX-62 was used to mask preparations for a possible invasion of Cuba.
3. We may be driving North Korea crazy. My wife and I have been married for 46 years, and now have an excellent relationship. But early in our marriage, I often drove her crazy by misunderstanding some of her legitimate complaints, and treating them as absurd. The more frustrated she became at being ignored, the less attention I paid to her seemingly irrational behavior – creating a vicious feedback loop which took us a long time to break. Similarly, if North Korea has some legitimate complaints which we have misunderstood, that would frustrate them and make them appear even more irrational than they really are. So it pays to explore some history:
In 1994, the US and North Korea were perilously close to war, but former President Jimmy Carter – acting as a private citizen – was able to defuse the crisis. The result was the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea froze its nuclear weapons program by:
- shutting down its 5 MW Magnox research reactor;
- putting the fuel rods from that reactor under lock and key, so that plutonium could not be extracted to make an estimated 4-8 bombs;
- stopping construction of an almost completed 50 MW Magnox reactor, which would have made 10 bombs a year; and
- stopping construction of a 200 MW Magnox reactor which would have made 40 bombs a year.
In return for those concessions, we agreed to provide them with more proliferation-resistant light water reactors (LWRs). Until those LWRs were delivered, we agreed to make annual shipments of heavy fuel oil to make up for the energy that the proliferation-prone Magnox reactors would have produced. Former Director of Los Alamos, Dr. Siegfried Hecker, who has been to North Korea seven times over the last decade on track two diplomatic missions has praised the Agreed Framework as a great deal for the US. In a 2010 paper, he explained how it fell apart
… the Agreed Framework was opposed immediately by many in Congress who believed that it rewarded bad behavior. Congress failed to appropriate funds for key provisions of the pact, causing the United States to fall behind in its commitments almost from the beginning. … [In 2002,] the Bush administration killed the Agreed Framework for domestic political reasons and because it suspected Pyongyang of cheating by covertly pursuing uranium enrichment. Doing so traded a potential threat that would have taken years to turn into bombs for one that took months, dramatically changing the diplomatic landscape in Pyongyang’s favor. … We found that Pyongyang was willing to slow its drive for nuclear weapons only when it believed the fundamental relationship with the United States was improving, but not when the regime was threatened.
Hecker’s last sentence may provide the key to defusing the current Korean crisis: If we continue to encourage regime change in North Korea via crippling sanctions and other means, that nation’s leaders will maintain or increase their nuclear arsenal to deter such efforts. As with Gaddafi’s fall, regime change would likely mean their deaths. But, if we were to decide that, as distasteful as that regime is, trying to topple it bears too great a risk, new possibilities would open up – perhaps even a new Agreed Framework. But first we have to stop pretending that we can get North Korea to unilaterally disarm while we are trying to produce regime change. Living in that imaginary world makes the risk of a needless war dangerously high.