US Unwittingly Encouraging North Korea’s Nuclear Program

While encouraging nuclear proliferation is one of the last things we want to do, we couldn’t be doing a better job if we tried. Every time we engage in regime change, we give would-be proliferators one more reason to seek nuclear weapons of their own. What other way do they have of deterring our much more powerful military from toppling them at some future date?

North Korea sees the murder of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi as Exhibit A in this argument, and yesterday blamed its third nuclear test as needed, “for defending its security and sovereignty to cope with the vicious hostile actions of the U.S.” In a clear reference to Gaddafi, the North Korean press release went on to note:

The tragic consequences in those countries which abandoned halfway their nuclear programs, yielding to the high-handed practices and pressure of the U.S. in recent years, clearly prove that the DPRK was very far-sighted and just when it made the option [to develop nuclear weapons]. They also teach the truth that the U.S. nuclear blackmail should be countered with substantial countermeasures, not with compromise or retreat.

The risk analysis approach I have advocated for defusing the nuclear threat does not wait for a nuclear catastrophe to recognize the unacceptable risk we face. Rather, it looks for early warning signs and takes remedial action before disaster strikes. This blog provides a good example of how that kind of thinking can illuminate what otherwise might be hidden.

On March 21, 2011, two days after the US joined an international coalition in air strikes against Gaddafi’s regime, I warned:

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is far from my favorite person. But, before we started an undeclared war on his regime, it would have been wise to think things through more carefully. I am not saying that our actions were a mistake, just that there has been insufficient thought given to their impact on issues such as nuclear proliferation.

Five days later, another post here quoted a March 22 North Korean press release which showed the validity of that thinking:

It was fully exposed before the world that “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement” much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as “guarantee of security” and “improvement of relations” to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.

Both that press release and yesterday’s clearly had in mind President Bush’s 2003 speech, where he stated:

Today in Tripoli, the leader of Libya, Colonel Moammar al-Ghadafi, publicly confirmed his commitment to disclose and dismantle all weapons of mass destruction programs in his country. … And another message should be equally clear: leaders who abandon the pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them, will find an open path to better relations with the United States and other free nations. … As the Libyan government takes these essential steps and demonstrates its seriousness, its good faith will be returned. Libya can regain a secure and respected place among the nations, and over time, achieve far better relations with the United States. … old hostilities do not need to go on forever. And I hope that other leaders will find an example in Libya’s announcement today.

Former Los Alamos Director Siegfried Hecker has repeatedly argued for a more effective US strategy for reining in North Korea’s dangerous nuclear ambitions. (Search this blog for occurrences of Hecker to see some of his most relevant statements.) For example, my April 16, 2012 post starts off:

In a recent interview, former Director of Los Alamos Siegfried Hecker made an important observation about North Korea’s nuclear weapons: “I do not believe that North Korea’s leadership has any plans to bomb the United States, its assets or allies. However, it wants to hold U.S. interests at risk of a nuclear attack to deter us from regime change and to create international leverage and diplomatic maneuvering room.”

If we jettison the feel-good mythology which has led to the current impasse with North Korea – if we think things through more carefully before acting – we can build a safer, more peaceful world. Our national ego may suffer in that process, but that is a small price to pay for our long-term survival.

Martin Hellman

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To learn more about risk analysis and nuclear deterrence, visit my related web site and read my paper in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. My briefing paper on the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis lists eleven current-day risks and ways to reduce them.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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