By Mark Narusov
Last couple of months media outlets in a number of countries have been thoroughly agitated over the possibility of a nuclear war between the regime of Kim Jong-un and the United States. Mark Bowden’s essay in The Atlantic serves as a great illustration of the gravity of the situation American decision-makers have to confront. His main point is as follows: There are 4 main “strategic options” of how to deal with the North Korean threat — prevention, “turning the screws”, decapitation, and acceptance. Having conducted interviews with leading experts and government officials that focused on the problem, Bowden concludes that all of the available options are catastrophic, except acceptance. Prevention would almost certainly fail to destroy the totality of DPRK’s nuclear capability and would trigger an overwhelming response, destroying the nuclear arsenal without targeting the regime would likely be met with the same reaction, decapitation is also extremely risky and may well lead to a nuclear war as well. Only tacit acquiescence to the fact that the most totalitarian state in the world will have nuclear-tipped ICBMs will prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
As horrific as it is already, it should also be said that there exists a possibility that a direct confrontation between the United States and North Korea is inevitable. According to Hwang Jang-yop, the former chair of DPRK’s parliament and Kim Jong-il’s mentor, the regime has always pursued nuclear weapons not merely as a deterrent against Western-initiated regime change, but also as an essential component of DPRK’s strategic goal of reunifying the Korean Peninsula — North Korean troops would march South while the bomb would scare the US away from interfering. Let that sink in, as they say.
Not every possible measure short of a military confrontation has been implemented yet, though. Key state enablers of the regime’s survival are Russia and China, who have repeatedly violated UN sanctions. US Treasury under President Trump has begun to target non-DPRK entities and individuals, but much more can be done — the full impact of American “peaceful pressure” campaign has yet to be seen. That is, unless Trump decides that dealing with the Korean threat is not worthy of sacrificing decent relations with China and Russia.
If there is a silver lining in the graveness of this crisis, however, it is that the colorful array of bad and catastrophic options shows just how dangerous nuclear-armed rogue regimes can be. Good enough reason, I reckon, to reassess the highly controversial legacy of the use of preventive action with respect to proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The example of Iraq is a particularly useful one. The first nation which decided that the buildup of Iraqi non-conventional capabilities merited preventive action was Israel. On 7 June 1981 it did what the nascent Iranian regime couldn’t less than a year before — destroyed what was to become an Iraqi nuclear reactor. The impact of the attack on Iraq’s nuclear program under Saddam Hussein is still debated with assessments ranging from insignificant to having prevented a real possibility of Saddam annexing Kuwait having a nuclear deterrent. Regardless, it did provoke a shift in Iraq’s calculations with regards to pursuing nuclear capability. The strike constituted the first execution of what was to be termed “the Begin Doctrine” named after the Israeli PM at the time — using preventive action to disrupt the adversary’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. International opinion at the time did not reflect the probable importance of the attack. Both the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council condemned the strike, along with Israel’s principal backer US, while the New York Times described it as “an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression”. In 2007, Israel conducted a similar operation in Syria, taking out a plutonium production reactor at al-Kibar, built with North Korea’s assistance.
The George W. Bush administration’s decision to abandon the security justification of the 2003 Iraq War in favor of the after-the-fact democracy promotion argument has left many with the wrong impression about what was actually uncovered in the aftermath of the invasion. The question of chemical and biological weapons is an issue for another discussion, but what the fact-finding mission Iraq Survey Group revealed in terms of Saddam’s nuclear program is highly relevant and deserves to be re-emphasized. While disproving the claim that the CIA conveyed to policymakers — that the nuclear program was active — it confirmed the principal point: Saddam never renounced his aspirations to acquire a nuclear weapon. According to the final report by the group (the “Duelfer Report”), he would have resumed it after the lifting of sanctions, support for which was rapidly deteriorating during the lead-up to the invasion, in no small part due to their humanitarian costs. With no sanctions left to constrain him, Saddam would have resumed his WMD programs, including nuclear.
The essential premise of the Bush doctrine that ultimately justified the 2003 intervention — that a rogue regime may hand over WMD’s to a terrorist group — may have been too radical of a departure from the Realist conception of the self-interested state. The idea that a regime, even irrational as Saddam’s was, could hand over devastating weapons to a destabilizing and indiscriminate terrorist group, seems far-fetched. However, the possibility of a break-out of a civil war in a nuclear state can vindicate the policy based on the flawed premise about a regime deliberately sharing their WMD capacity with a terrorist organization. It does not help that brutal dictatorships are less likely to reform than to implode and create a vacuum of power to be filled by all kinds of less than friendly actors.
Regardless of what the previous American administration chose to believe about the world order, hard power, coercion, and intimidation work pretty well when dealing with rogue states. Surely, Libya’s voluntary dismantlement of its WMD programs in 2004 was not solely caused by American and British threats, now credible and backed by a demonstrated willingness to act, — the international sanctions and the economic costs of running a nuclear program also played a role. But the substantial impact of the invasion is undeniable. A few days before the commencement of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Gaddafi’s representatives reached out to President Bush and Prime Minister Blair (not Kofi Annan or Jacques Chirac) through envoys and communicated his “willingness to dismantle all WMD programs”, including nuclear. Less than a year after the invasion, Gaddafi acknowledged that his regime had pursued a nuclear weapons program in violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. As part of Libya’s comprehensive cooperation with the US and Britain, the regime named the suppliers of its designs of centrifuges. Among those implicated was the proliferation network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, which had assisted North Korea and Iran. The disclosure led to Khan’s arrest in 2004 under Pakistani jurisdiction. Libya abandoned all pretenses for nuclear capability and was largely verified as compliant with its treaty obligations by the IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, in 2005.
It should also be said that the Iraq War apparently had an impact on Iranian nuclear program as well, albeit incomparable to the effect it had on Libya’s. In 2015’s IAEA’s Final Assessment report indicated that Iran paused developing some components of its nuclear program by the end of 2003. Here as with the Libyan case, sanctions also played a role.
Sometimes an act illegal under international law is necessary to uphold the weight of UN resolutions and prevent would-be worse illegal acts committed by the West’s adversaries. As controversial as it is now in the context of American and especially European war-weariness, preventive action remains a valuable option when dealing with grave threats. Some confrontations really are inevitable, and what seems like an unnecessary and risky decision now can play a decisive role in the future. Preventive acts with the purpose of degrading parts of an adversary’s WMD program send strong messages that have the effect of raising the cost of pursuing these programs in the strategic calculations by rogue regimes and buttress future negotiations with a credible threat to resort to the use of force, thereby reinforcing leverage and making bigger-scale confrontation less likely. The weakness of the JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated under the Obama administration between Iran and the P5+1, underscores this point vividly enough: having secured the perception of himself in the eyes of adversaries as the President who would go to any lengths to avoid conflict, Barack Obama essentially provoked Iran into taking advantage of this and packing numerous concessions that only ensure a future conflict between the U.S. and the regime over its nuclear program. And how could they not — Iran’s leadership knew that Obama did not leave himself an alternative way to deal with their government other than by pursuing diplomacy.
The costs of not acting with respect to nuclear proliferation are too high, as the Korean crisis demonstrates. The only option left as of now is to ramp up secondary sanctions, a measure that is very far from likely to have an effect significant enough to eradicate the nuclear threat posed by the North Korean regime. Only in retrospect does one see clearly that a different policy should have been pursued in the past in order to prevent the situation from deteriorating to the point where it is today.
As former under secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith argued in his memoir “War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism”,
“…the largest benefit of success is avoiding the horrific costs of failure. Preventing calamities is one of the most important and least appreciated functions of government. When an evil is averted—perhaps as a result of insight, intensive effort, and administrative skill—the result is that nothing happens. It is easy, after the fact, for critics to ignore or deprecate the accomplishment. Political opponents may scoff at the effort as unnecessary, citing the absence of disaster as proof that the problem could not have been very serious to begin with” (p. 523).
Mark Narusov is a second year student in the Euro-American program at Sciences Po Campus of Reims and Foreign Affairs Editor for The Sundial Press.