Much nonsense has been spewed following North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 12. Outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta declared that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are a “serious threat” to the United States. “I don’t know how you come up with a more dangerous scenario than this,” Gordon G. Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, warned on FOX News. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs constitute a threat to U.S. national security and to international peace,” President Obama argued.
The implied notion that North Korea’s bomb can or will be used as a means of blackmail to alter the regional balance of power, let alone to threaten a superpower, is not supported by experience. The United States, Russia (previously the Soviet Union), China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel have possessed nuclear weapons for decades. But this reality did not affect the outcome in Korea in 1953, or the Suez in 1956, or prevent the two superpowers’ defeats in Vietnam and Afghanistan, respectively. It makes no difference to China’s stalled efforts to bring Taiwan under her control. South Africa had developed her own nuclear arsenal in the 1980’s—it has since been dismantled—but this did not enhance her government’s ability to resist the winds of change in the early 1990’s.
Ever since 1945, the political effect of a country’s possession of nuclear weapons has been to force its potential adversaries to exercise caution and to freeze the existing frontiers. There is no reason to think that North Korea will be an exception to the rule.
North Korea may be the most unpleasant totalitarian dictatorship in the world, but ever since the country was designated the eastern pivot of the “Axis of Evil” in President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, she has had legitimate grounds to feel threatened. A North Korean spokesman told the state news agency that the latest nuclear test was conducted in response to the menace posed by Washington. This is not mere propaganda by a paranoid regime. As Patrick J. Buchanan reminded us on February 15, America has never recognized the North Korean government:
We have led the U.N. Security Council in imposing sanctions. We have 28,000 troops in the South and a defense treaty that will bring us into any war with the North from day one, and a U.S. general would assume overall command of U.S. and Republic of Korea troops. We are South Korea’s defense shield and deterrent against the North.
The White House continues to insist North Korea must give up nuclear weapons before it will talk about normalizing relations. This position makes renewed talks, and thus any change in Pyongyang’s strategy, improbable. “We have spent most of the past twelve years not talking to North Korea,” says Joseph Cirincione, head of the Ploughshares Fund, which focuses on nuclear-weapons policy. “During that time they have conducted three nuclear tests and four missile tests. When we have talked to them, they haven’t conducted any tests. They shut down their facilities.” Adopting the same principle in Korea today that was applied to the reality of two German states in 1974 would be prudent and rational, a technical move that implies no approval of Pyongyang’s policies.
This seems unlikely, for now. According to President Obama, the nuclear test offered only an illusion of greater security to North Korea: “These provocations do not make North Korea more secure . . . The danger posed by North Korea’s threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community.”
This is nonsense. The possession of nuclear weapons, far from providing an “illusion” of greater security, is the only reliable insurance policy available to those states that Washington may deem fit for regime change. Had Serbia had the bomb in 1999, or Iraq in 2003, they would not have been subjected to illegal American attacks on patently spurious grounds.
Even less convincing is Obama’s threat of a “credible action by the international community.” As with two previous North Korean nuclear tests (2006 and 2009), the U.S. response focused on more stringent sanctions in the U.N. Security Council. We saw the effectiveness of this approach in January—three weeks before the latest test—when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice asserted that “the new sanctions and tightening of existing measures concretely help to reduce the growth of North Korea’s weapons programs.” They do nothing of the kind. Expanding restrictions on North Korean state corporations and adding more of the nation’s apparatchiks to a travel blacklist will not make the slightest difference: The test-sanctions-test cycle will continue ad nauseam.
Some imagination is needed in Washington, including a rethink of the old orthodoxy that nuclear proliferation is inherently dangerous. It is not. Since 1945 there have been many wars, but no catastrophic ones on par with the Great War and its 1939-45 sequel. This long peace, lasting for close to seven decades thus far, is almost entirely because of the existence of nuclear weapons and their possession by an expanding circle of powers. By the logic of history, harking back to Rome versus Carthage, Persia versus Byzantium, and—repeatedly—England versus France, the United States and the Soviet Union should have gone to war at some point in the decades following the defeat of Germany and Japan. But they did not, because by 1949 they both had nuclear weapons—and they were rightly afraid of the cost to themselves of engaging in a conflict that would almost certainly have escalated beyond conventional means.
The “Balance of Terror” is a grim term that denotes a comforting reality, and its logic applies to the lesser powers, such as India and Pakistan, who went to war three times after the Partition—in 1947, 1965, and 1971—but not since then. Following that pattern, the violence in Kashmir in March 2008 and the Pakistani-linked terrorist attacks in Bombay in November of that year would have reignited the conflict, but they did not. The possession of nuclear weapons by both adversaries made the difference.
The same principle should apply to the Korean peninsula. Sanctions or no sanctions, Pyongyang will not give up its bomb. Therefore, for the sake of regional peace and stability, South Korea should get one, too, and there is no reason for Japan not to follow suit. Back in the 1970’s the Ford administration induced South Korea to abandon her nuclear-weapons program in return for not withdrawing American soldiers. Now is the time to reverse the policy. Washington should grant a free nuclear hand to Seoul in return for a full U.S. troop withdrawal.
Influential figures in South Korea and Japan are finally beginning to call upon their countries’ leaders to consider this possibility. South Korean deputy Chung Mong-joon of the governing Saenuri (New Frontier) party told his colleagues at the National Assembly that if you have to live with “a gangster in the neighborhood with a brand-new machine gun,” you should get one too. Incidentally, Chung is South Korea’s richest lawmaker, with a controlling stake in the Hyundai Corporation. On the opposition benches, a spokesman for the Democratic United Party criticized the ruling party for failing to consider the possibility of countering North Korea’s nuclear program with a South Korean nuclear deterrent. In the same vein, JoongAng Ilbo, a leading South Korean daily, has argued that the country should arm itself with nuclear weapons. The paper’s editorialist wondered, reasonably enough, whether the United States would ultimately protect the South if Pyongyang develops the ability to threaten the American mainland.
The latest North Korean nuclear test strengthens the case for the withdrawal of the remaining 28,000 American troops from the Korean peninsula. It is high time to let the countries directly affected by Pyongyang’s actions—South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia—deal with North Korea themselves. The response of the Truman administration to Kim Il Sung’s aggression in June 1950 was swift, bold, and necessary. For many years after the armistice, the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea was justified by the fact that neither China nor the Soviet Union could be trusted to keep the North under control. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, the equation has changed. Russia has gradually distanced herself from the North Korean regime. China is no longer its reliable enabler, as exemplified by Beijing’s condemnation of the latest test. More significantly, South Korea is an economic powerhouse with the financial and scientific potential to become a nuclear power on short notice. She is perfectly capable of deterring North Korea, a fourth-rate power and a hopeless economic basket case stuck in a peculiar brand of despotism.
As I have previously noted in these pages, removing the American umbrella from South Korea would be beneficial to both sides because the United States would be disengaged from a spot where the dangers of a continued military presence exceed the benefits. In addition, South Korea would be forced to end her unnecessary and ultimately risky defense-dependence on Washington:
Old habits may die hard, but the 50-year habit of garrisoning South Korea is neither sentimentally nor strategically addictive. It has to be kicked, because it is dangerous, expensive, and unnecessary: The United States is not threatened by Pyongyang, and she regards the nature of North Korea’s regime as irrelevant.
To the argument that South Korea’s military is not strong enough to withstand the threat from the North, the answer is clear: Only by removing our tripwire can the United States finally force South Korea to upgrade her military and make her people assume the full economic and political burden of defending their own country.
The habit is now 60 years old, but the verdict from November 2003 still stands.