Graham Allison: Bush's failed North Korean strategy

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Graham Allison is Douglas Dillon professor of government and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.]

In the battle of wills between North Korea and the United States, the score is Kim Jong Il, 8; George W. Bush, 0. And yet, the White House doggedly pursues a strategy that has repeatedly failed to achieve American objectives. Despite the overwhelming power of the United States and the abject weakness of North Korea, David has so far bested Goliath with superior strategy and tactics. It’s a situation no one should applaud.

When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, North Korea had two bombs’ worth of plutonium (diverted from Pyongyang in 1990 under the former President Bush). Eight thousand fuel rods with enough plutonium for six bombs resided in cooling ponds, monitored 24 hours a day by International Atomic Energy Agency video cameras. Since 2003, these fuel rods have been reprocessed into six bombs’ worth of plutonium. The Yongbyon reactor, which was shut down several times in the past, is now churning out enough plutonium for two more bombs a year. With its successful nuclear test, the small, poor, backward Hermit Kingdom has forced its way into the nuclear club.

Countries tempted to cheer, even silently, for Kim Jong Il’s besting of the United States should stop and think carefully about the consequences of North Korea’s new nuclear status for their own national interests.

First, North Korea’s test blows a large hole in the long-standing nonproliferation regime. In addition, it badly dents the hope that the U.N. Security Council can restrain rogue behavior. Kim Jong Il is betting that, for all its barking, the Security Council’s bite will be just as toothless as it has been in the past. Kim believes that China and South Korea fear North Korea’s collapse more than they fear Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons—and he is probably right. What Kim Jong Il and others, including Iran’s leadership, are learning from this pattern of successful defiance will fuel further challenges to the international system.

Second, as the U.N. High-Level Panel of 2004 warned, North Korea’s nuclear test is likely, over time, to trigger an East Asian “cascade of proliferation.” In the next few weeks, the U.S. government will launch a major initiative to reassure Japan and South Korea about the reliability of America’s nuclear umbrella. Embarrassed by the failure of their own policies, the governments of South Korea and Japan will speak confidently about the United States’ nuclear deterrent. No need to worry about Kim Jong Il’s nuclear threats, they will tell their citizens, the United States would retaliate massively against such an attack.

Quietly, however, Tokyo and Seoul will be examining “Plan B”: acquiring independent nuclear deterrents. If, despite unambiguous warnings to North Korea, the United States and the world now allow it to develop a nuclear arsenal, America’s ability to deter its use will be in doubt....

Kim Jong Il must be put on notice that the explosion of any nuclear weapon or material of North Korean origin on the territory of the United States or its allies will be treated just like a North Korean nuclear attack and will be met by a full retaliatory response that guarantees that this could never happen again.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Cary Fraser - 10/20/2006

It amy be useful to point out that North Korea is only the most recent of the states that has successfully developed nuclear weapons in spite of interantional concerns. Others include Israel, India, and, Pakistan while South Africa opted to end its program after the demise of the apartheid regime. Proliferation will continue as long as the major nuclear states fail to respect their commitments with regard to dismantling their own stockpiles. The mere existence of nuclear arsenals is itself an incentive for proliferation. North Korea is not the problem - the unwillingness of the major nuclear powers to commit themselves to previous commitments about dismantling their arsenals is at the root of the proliferation imperative.