Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 6: North Korea

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.

Martin Hellman

Reference for PHIBRIGLEX-62: George Washington University National Security Archive chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 358-359.

Reference for Gaddafi precedent: See my February 22, 2013 post, “US Unwittingly Encouraging North Korea’s Nuclear Program.”

Additional Reading: Today, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) posted Part 1 of an excellent series of interviews with Korean experts. (Added later: a link to Part 2.) More detailed information about North Korea’s nuclear program is in Handout #5 of my seminar notes.

Links to all posts in this series on Avoiding Needless Wars
Part 1: The First Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 2: The Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 3: Are We About to Repeat the Mistakes of Vietnam?
Part 4: Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert
Part 5: Operation Northwoods
Part 6: North Korea
Part 7: Afghanistan
Part 8: Syria
Part 9: Iraq
Part 10: Iran

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: https://anewmap.com.
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11 Responses to Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 6: North Korea

  1. Carl Shulman says:

    “As with Gaddafi’s fall, regime change would likely mean their deaths…But first we have to stop pretending that we can get North Korea to unilaterally disarm while we are trying to produce regime change”

    Is it obvious how one should make this trade-off if one’s sole concern were reducing nuclear risk, setting aside all other considerations? The “Democratic Peace” evidence seems quite strong, with totalitarian regimes such as North Korea much more violent than merely authoritarian regimes, and democracies much more peaceful still. South Africa abandoned its nuclear weapons with the end of the apartheid regime, under intense international sanctions and pressure, and it seems fairly likely that the North Korean nukes would be dismantled following regime collapse and reunification. So international pressure can successfully push for both regime change and nuclear disarmament at the same time in at least some cases.

    One important difference you raise is that it was made clear that South African politicians would not be imprisoned and executed en masse post-apartheid. The International Criminal Court and developing legal norms against massacres of the sort engaged in by the North make it harder to credibly offer amnesty, but not impossible. The South Korean government is much more disposed to offer favorable terms to outgoing Northern elites than the Libyan rebels, and is fairly credible (since the Southerners have not been suffering the Northern atrocities directly, and has an established legal order).

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    Carl, you raise an interesting question, which doesn’t have a definitive answer since we can’t do parallel universe experiments — make different nations democratic or authoritarian, and then rerun various crises. That said, I don’t put too much stock in the theory that democratic nations don’t start wars. As parts 1-3 of this series show, the US bears considerable responsibility for starting the Vietnam War. While it might be argued that this was in response to communist aggression against South Vietnam, as the Pentagon Papers show (and as John Kahin and John Lewis pointed out in their 1965 Bulletin paper), the South Vietnamese government had the loyalty of a distinct minority of the population. There is strong evidence that, if the country-wide elections promised by the Geneva Accords of 1954 had been carried out, Ho Chi Minh would have won. Which is almost surely why South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem refused to allow them. While democracies may go to war less often than dictatorships, we have to be careful not to confuse correlation with causality. Democracies tend to be in richer, more developed nations, which I think lessens the odds of war. If others have different opinions, please weigh in.

    • Carl Shulman says:

      I am going off the literature review in Steven Pinker’s book. This article, from an author he cites, discusses internal democide, which is more visibly under internal control.

      In the case of North Korea attributing the democratic peace to riches or development wouldn’t obviously make a difference. North Korean per capita GDP is $1,800, while South Korean GDP per capita is about $30,000. Reunification would allow Northerners to work in Southern labor markets, almost immediately multiplying income several fold (even unskilled laborers in South Korea earn several times the Northern mean income), and extend developed-country Southern institutions (courts, media, elections, education) to the North.

  3. Nuclear Risk says:

    Carl: Thanks for the pointer to that article. Martin

  4. yousaf says:

    Our Nuclear Posture Review has a pro-proliferation flaw.

    As Tad Daley of The Project on Abolishing War writes:

    “During a press conference at the Pentagon on April 6th, 2010, announcing the Obama Administration’s “Nuclear Posture Review” (NPR), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the new document now pledged that the United States would not launch nuclear attacks against non-nuclear states. Terrific! Except, then, he indicated that states “not in compliance with the NPT” had been placed in an entirely different category — and were not exempt from American nuclear attack.

    Then, to clear up any ambiguity whatsoever, he specifically named two and only two states as falling within this new class: North Korea and Iran. For these two countries, said Secretary Gates, “there is a message … if you’re going to play by the rules, if you’re going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you … But if you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you.”

    End quote


  5. yousaf says:

    The above quote was mentioned by Bibi Jon over at armscontrollaw.com btw.

  6. Nuclear Risk says:

    Yousaf, Thanks for those links. My post of February 22, 2013, linked to at the end of this one under “Reference for Gaddafi precedent” starts off: “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.” But it focuses on our penchant for regime change motivating would-be proliferators, not on the NPR carve out, which as you note, also is a strong proliferation motivator. Martin

  7. Wesley Parish says:

    Well, for what it’s worth, when I first saw and heard of the new North Korean President’s statements and actions and threats, I thought of President Nixon’s Madman statements, and thought, “Well, Nixon’s got his Number One Fan, hasn’t he!?!”

    And wondered, just what else is going on that we aren’t being told?

  8. Kabir Chowdhury says:

    North Korea’s irrational behaviour has raised eyebrows all around the world. A third grade military power and even a further lower grade economic power is threatening world’s lone superpower with a nuclear showdown. North Korea knows much better than others that it cannot win a war with USA. Notably the American response has been surprisingly muted. Many analysts say that the purpose of North Korea’s hostile behaviour is to attract concessions from USA. But this is completely wrong. Allowing any concession to North Korea would mean submission to nuclear blackmail. There are several puzzles here.
    1. Why North Korea believes that it can get away with this nuclear blackmail with the world’s lone superpower? Why it is taking this risk? Why it is so confident that it would not attract a pre-emptive strike by the USA?
    2. Why the US response to North Korea’s threat has been so muted?
    3. What North Korea expects to gain from this?

    The theory below will explain all this puzzle :
    Israel is paying North Korea to do this. Why? To prove to the world that countries like North Korea and Iran cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons. Israel is trying to strengthen its arguent that as soon as these countries have a few nuclear weapons, they want to drop it somewhere. Israel wants to use this as a justification to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran.

    So the North Korea crisis is actually a set-up. Americans know it and that’s why their response has been so muted. North Korea knows that it is a risk-free game because Americans know that North Korea is not actually going to do anything. So this single theory explains all the puzzles.

  9. Nuclear Risk says:

    While I strongly disagree with Mr. Chowdhury’s conspiracy theory about Israel being behind North Korea’s bellicose actions, in the interests of free discussion I left it up. The fact that it is on this blog site is far from an endorsement. Martin Hellman

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