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June 03, 2005

North Korea: The Military Option
Posted by Michael Signer

A smart, tough, and thought-provoking WaPo op-ed today by Susan Rice (a former Clinton assistant secretary of state) on the North Korea situation.  Her most provocative graf:

At this late stage, the United States has three options.

First, we could strike North Korea's suspected nuclear facilities or use force to change the regime. Military options must remain on the table, but all of them are problematic. U.S. intelligence on North Korea is poor. Overstretched in Iraq, the United States does not have ground forces for an invasion. South Korea and China vehemently oppose military action. Worse still, North Korea could retaliate with a nuclear or conventional strike on nearby Seoul, on our more than 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, on Japan or even on the United States.

Her point is made more powerful and problematic against the backdrop of an astonishing press conference earlier this week  by President Bush.  Here's how he answered a question about North Korea:

Q Good morning, Mr. President. This morning you reiterated diplomacy as the way to deal with North Korea. With all due respect, some people say that's precisely the wrong approach because diplomacy has produced nothing, while at the same time it has allowed North Korea to progress in its nuclear program.


Q How do you -- what do you say to them?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, then let's see -- if it's the wrong -- if diplomacy is the wrong approach, I guess that means military. That's how I view it -- it's either diplomacy or military. And I am for the diplomacy approach. And so, for those who say that we ought to be using our military to solve the problem, I would say that, while all options are on the table, we've got -- we've got a ways to go to solve this diplomatically.

BEWARE -- if you think a dovish analysis is coming, you will be disappointed. 

I don't want to be intemperate.  I'm certainly not bellicose.  I just want to think this through.  And I would like to start from a blank slate, meaning I have no ideological investment in any prefabricated policy conclusion.  I'm just interested in America's security.  From this beginning point, the President's blanket statement in his press conference triggers two questions. 

One:  Why should the military option be off the table as a matter of policy?  Why are we already committed to this binary choice? 

Two:  Why is the Administration getting away with gross illogic and hypocrisy in its contrary approaches to Iraq and North Korea?

Because these two questions are related, let's take them together.

The problem to many people in Iraq was that the underlying motivations of the war seemed to be much more about retrospective grievances than about prospective calculations.  This was why John Kerry said last year (with a typically tortured syntax):

[I]t is critical that this president gives life to the notion that the United States of America never goes to war because we want to. We should only go to war because we have to.

All the diplomatic and journalistic evidence (rather than the WMD evidence) suggested that Iraq had actually retreated into a relatively non-bellicose stance over the last several years, and was hardly currently threatening the United States.

In talking about "wanting" to go to war, Kerry was speaking to the idea that our approach on Iraq was colored by desire:  desire for revenge, desire for a fantastic, neocon guinea pig for democracy, desire for easy oil revenues. 

It was for all these reasons that the Administration did exactly the opposite of what the President is urging now:  they overtly and consistently chose the military rather than diplomatic option

Now, turn to North Korea.  President Bush is saying, as a matter of policy, we must choose the diplomatic rather than military option. 


As I see it, there are two ways to think about this in light of Iraq, and they have to do with whether we take Iraq and North Korea separately or apart. 

First, we can abandon any hope for logical consistency or ideological follow-through and instead approach the Administration's decision in Iraq as a kind of outlier. 

If we ignore Iraq, and look at North Korea with (somehow) fresh eyes, then North Korea becomes a test case for whether the Bush Administration has become all dewy-eyed and Clintonian in its appreciation for the power of soft power.  Then the question becomes, simply, whether or not their approach will work.

The second option is a little harder.  If we instead try to view the two situations together, as part of an integrated foreign policy, then the question becomes why we shouldn't be actively considering military along with diplomatic options -- especially if, applying the same logic we used in Iraq, North Korea is more of the same type of threat Iraq presented.

Let's go back to Rice's op-ed:

Military options must remain on the table, but all of them are problematic. U.S. intelligence on North Korea is poor. Overstretched in Iraq, the United States does not have ground forces for an invasion. South Korea and China vehemently oppose military action. Worse still, North Korea could retaliate with a nuclear or conventional strike on nearby Seoul, on our more than 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, on Japan or even on the United States.

We faced similar problems (regional instability, continuing attacks on our troops) going into Iraq.  But we went in anyway because of the rationales underlying what was a new American foreign policy of pre-emption.

The greatest irony is that the single greatest problem, in this crazy Catch-22 universe of the Bush Administration, is that our mismatch of rhetoric and reality in Iraq has hamstrung us for the reality in North Korea -- and so our rhetoric (with Bush looking embarrassingly weak in pleading for diplomacy with Kim Jong Il) has to play catch-up. 

As a nation, we should have some consistency to our foreign policy.  I know that the hallmark of realpolitik is intellectual flexibility based on context.  But I thought the whole point was that this Administration had moved beyond hard power calculations. 

The Bush Administration doesn't just speak for itself -- it speaks for the nation.  The Administration is tangled in a web of its own making and is trying to present Iraq and North Korea as two separate cases.  But they're not. 


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Why the different policies? Two big reasons, near as I can tell.

[1] The problems mentioned in Rice's article. Air strikes are not an option likely to succeed, even to decapitate the regime (though the DoD did just order initial production of 71 BLU-122 bunker-buster penetrator warheads). The intel is not there, and never has been, and indeed the USA has been historically poor at penetrating serious totalitarian socieites.

[2] The parts Bush can't say: "We have to pursue diplomacy because the South Korean regime is a collection of the blind and the bribed, which prefers to endanger American cities in future to (a) protect Seoul now and (b) avoid disturbing their convenient existence with refugees they'd only have to feed and clothe if the North collapses. Since they'll never agree to any hostile action against the North, under any circumstances short of invasion (and we're not sure even then), and we don't have the intel for air attack to work, we're kind of out of luck here unless we can maneuver the Chinese into pressuring its loose-cannon satrapy before it's looking at a nuclear Japan and nuclear Taiwan. Ooops, did I just say all that out loud...?"

And of course, no sane President WOULD say that out loud. Even though it's what a lot of folks are thinking, and acting on.

You also write "These perils pale in comparison to those we faced going into Iraq.

To which my response, after considering the availability of next-door land bases to launch from, Saddam's inability to cause 6-figure casualties in 15 minutes as Kim could via artillery on Seoul, decent certainty that no operational nukes were yet in Iraq, and absence of any great power with nuclear weapons who might decide to intervene as it had once before should America act in Iraq... I mean, exactly what planet are you on here Michael?

I like the idea of being willing to go for the non-dovish analysis. I like the concept of "tough liberlism."

But there's tough, and then there's stupid.

If you've got a bright idea or two re: North Korea, be specific. The whole damn world would like to know (including, I suspect, more than a couple Chinese officials). But to sit here mewling about "consistency" given the major differences described herein is just puerile.

I'm with Joe on this. While I think it's been consistently imprudent of this administration to pre-concede things which should be open to negotiation (in this case use of military force), the difference between Iraq and North Korea is that North Korea has a powerful patron: China. That's also why multilateral talks are critical. No solution can be achieved without the agreement of the Chinese. And, of course, if you include the Chinese, you've got to include the Japanese also. And so on.

I agree with Joe and Dave, and want to add two more things.

First, it is not Iraq but N. Korea that is the outlier, first because they are apparently a nuclear-armed state and second because they are not jihadis, so the different circumstances in N. Korea demand a different approach than Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Second, there is every likelihood that N. Korea will collapse on its own, absent massive external food aid. The S. Koreans don't want this, because they know they'd take on the financial and political burdens of reintegrating the North. That is why S. Korea wants to prop up the N. Koreans with food, energy, and economic aid and outright transfers of cash. It's not necessarily because they are bribed or blind; it could be because they see quite well.

(Political burden, you ask? How easy will it be for a democracy to deny voting rights to its newly-acquired citizens of identical nationality and language for the generation it will require to un-brainwash the people and fix the economic and social mess to the point that the assimilated population wouldn't simply destroy the South's government immediately by voting without knowledge?)

There are diplomatic options available, including pressuring China to intercede with the North and if necessary occupy the North. We could also offer large inducements, massive bribes, to the North, like a promise not to attack and effectively feeding the entire country if they would allow us absolutely unrestricted access to anything anywhere, eliminate their nuclear program, etc. The North would, almost certainly, refuse. There are economic options available, but they are more risky. An embargo or blockade could trigger war.

At increased risk, there are other ways we could pressure the North, by doing selective raids, sinking their warships, skirmishing along the border, attacking selected oil pipelines from China, and so on. These are all acts of war, but none of them threaten the regime's existence. However, this would require the cooperation of China and S. Korea to work, and could set off a nuclear attack by the North.

So for the time being, the diplomatic route is probably the best, and certainly the safest, way to defuse the N. Korean crisis. It may be necessary later to fight the N. Koreans, but let's hope not.

There is no question that the Bush Administration has made a hash of our Korea policy. As with many foreign policy issues it faced when it came to power, the Bush Administration put ideological opposition to the Clinton Administration's clear-eyed engagement policies before U.S. national interests. They have dug such a deep hole that diplomacy alone may not enable us to climb out. For too long, the "military option" in Korea has been dismissed as too provocative and too costly - but there are multiple military options short of full scale invasion and regime change that we should actively and publicly explore, if only to communicate to the North Koreans that we are serious and also capable of strategic surprise.

What gives the US the right to "decide" whether North Korea is allowed to arm itself with nuclear weapons? Why would any intervention be justified? When's the last time Kim Jong Il attacked someone? The US has nuclear weapons, has refused to disarm, is actively developing NEW nukes, and is thus in violation of the NPT. Other nations have nukes, too. How dare the US think it has any right to say who can and can't acquire them. The blog entry and comments here betray and arrogance and warped sensibility so ingrained you have no idea it's even there. I'm an American, concerned with America's security, but fair is fair.

Second, there is every likelihood that N. Korea will collapse on its own, absent massive external food aid. The S. Koreans don't want this, because they know they'd take on the financial and political burdens of reintegrating the North. That is why S. Korea wants to prop up the N. Koreans with food, energy, and economic aid and outright transfers of cash. It's not necessarily because they are bribed or blind; it could be because they see quite well.
I think there's a complication here. The Chinese (and, I suspect, the Japanese as well) don't want a unified Korea. Such a country would be significantly stronger than the current mess and would possess nuclear weapons (inherited from the North).
When's the last time Kim Jong Il attacked someone?
How about daily? You might check a few of the reports from our guys stations in South Korea.


Joe, Dave and Jeff appear to be right and you appear to be somewhat misinformed?

Add nuclear equipped Russia to the list of states that might oppose
a preemptive strike on North Korea. I believe that Russia continues to
have some sort of alliance with North Korea, as does China.

This was not true for Iraq. But really the invasion of Iraq was more about Iran
than about Sadaam.

If we are to compare Iraq with North Korea in the context you describe then you must return to 1991 and Gulf War I. Why didn't Bush I take Baghdad and resolve the issue once and for all? Because the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and had moved 23 tank equipped divisions within easy striking distance of Iraq. If G HW Bush had pushed the goal beyond the liberation of Kuwait those hungry and resentful divisions that had just been pulled back from Eastern Europe may have been given a chance to wreak their revenge upon their hated foe, the United States.

With nuclear super states involved in a regional crisis of this genre (and North
Korea's) its definitely not foreign policy as much as it is a game of "chicken". Nuclear brinkmanship is scary and unpredicatable, most especially in a strategically vital area like the Middle East. North Korea does not fall into that
category unless it should decide to attack Japan and/or South Korea.

The fair is fair argument is symptomatic of the failure of much of my Party (I'm a Dem) to see the real risks. No one really cares that India, Britain, Israel, France, South Africa (claims to have disarmed but it's laughable), or Brazil (probably well along) have nukes because the likelihood of them being used against the US is very very small.

The likelihood of Kim Jong-Il, "Dear Leader," and certifiable nutjob out of Saddam's central casting of using nukes against us (or selling them for some really quick money) is pretty high. Thabo Mbeki may not be our friend but he's got no desire to nuke us or sell nukes to those who would. So, North Korea is a threat (made worse by Clinton not cutting a definitive deal with China when he could and kicking the problem down the road) which inevitably will find it's price for delay. I see Bush also delaying hoping like Clinton to kick it down to the next President. Kim's whole regime is based on a massive arms bazaar so selling a couple of nukes for a spare billion or so, makes sense to him.

My Party used to understand things like this, lately not so much.

Last year the Atlantic Monthly got a bunch of Iraq hawks together and asked them to wargame Iran. Their conclusions fit North Korea as well:

---"In the end, according to our panelists, [Bush] should understand that he cannot prudently order an attack on Iran. But his chances of negotiating his way out of the situation will be greater if the Iranians don't know that. He will have to brandish the threat of a possible attack while offering the incentive of economic and diplomatic favors should Iran abandon its plans. "If you say there is no acceptable military option, then you end any possibility that there will be a non-nuclear Iran," David Kay said after the war game...."But you want to fool the enemy, not fool yourself. You can't delude yourself into thinking you can do something you can't."---

The reason we could attack Iraq is because we knew Saddam didn't have much. Bush didn't even bother to guard suspected WMD sites.

OTOH, the CIA thinks that North Korea has 6 to 8 nuclear weapons. With all due respect, anyone who seriously thinks about military action against N.K. -- except as a bargaining bluff or as a last resort -- is crazy. Seoul has a population of over 10 million people. What right do we have to condemn these people to death, even if avoiding war does make us "inconsistent?"

--"I'm not saying we won't get our hair mussed up, but 10-20 million deaths tops, depending on the breaks."

-- Gen. Buck Turgidson, "Dr. Strangelove"

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