Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Daring Porcupine?

North Korea has marked the Pillsbury Nuke Boy's birthday, using the occasion to laud their efforts to defy the United States and celebrating their recent announcement that they have nuclear weapons:

"The Americans swagger like a tiger around the world, but they whimper before our Republic as the tiger does before the porcupine," Pyongyang Radio said. "That's because we have our Great Leader Kim Jong Il, who is undefeatable."

Apparently, it is from a local fable. It really must sound better in Korean.

So should we whimper before the intrepid wombat? Yes, Pyongyang claims to have nukes. They certainly have nuclear programs. But given that our intelligence was wrong about Iraq, didn't detect Libya's program, missed the Pakistani nuclear network, and was blindsided by the Indian and Pakistani nuke tests, you'd think those bashing the President over Iraq by invoking the North Korean threat would be the last ones insisting that North Korea is a present threat (hey, I'm just relieved they don't claim we have to solve the Palestinian problem before we deal with the courageous beaver). Shoot, the South Koreans caution against assuming North Korea is a nuclear power:

Unification Minister Chung Dong-young noted North Korea has yet to conduct a nuclear test, unlike other nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan.

"I believe it is early for us to call the North a nuclear state," when it has not been independently confirmed, Chung said in a speech to parliament. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon, who met Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also said the North may be bluffing.

Granted, this is the South Korean unification minister, who knows the cost of absorbing North Korea and is scared witless of the prospect of winning against a poverty-stricken North Korea almost as much as losing to a nuclear North Korea. So he has incentive to minimize the threat from the audacious armadillo.

So, we have a birthday celebration, an announcement of nukes, questions over how advanced the North is in actually developing a working nuke that can be delivered and detonated (and reports they bought a more reliable nuclear weapon), and a refusal to engage in the six-power talks:

The North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Pyongyang no longer was willing to hold direct talks with Washington because of what it described as the United States' alleged persistent attempts to try to topple the communist regime, Xinhua said.

"The DPRK has no justification to take bilateral talks ... on the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula with the United States now," Xinhua quoted the spokesman as saying. DPRK is the acronym for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

So should we be hiking our skirts and leaping on the stool to send money and talk one-on-one with the valorous vole?

Nope. Strategypage notes (see February 17) a lot of factors that make North Korea less dangerous than Iran. One, we are the least at risk from North Korean threats. We can better afford to wait out the North and work for their collapse. We can afford to insist that our allies shoulder the burden of containing North Korea and reversing their nuclear program. Our partners in the talks are much more at risk than we are. Plus, for all the talk that we are too stretched in Iraq to fight anybody else, the North Koreans probably know that is false comfort for them:

The North Koreans know that the U.S. Navy had dozens of warships in the area, that could let loose with hundreds of precision guided Tomahawk cruise missiles. They know that the American navy and air force are not tied down in Iraq, and are able to rush forces to South Korea faster than the U.S. army in any circumstances. Moreover, only about 15 percent of the American army is tied down in Iraq, and many U.S. ground troops, now combat experienced, are available for movement to Korea.

South Korea would provide most of the ground forces in a war even if we rushed all the ground forces our war plans called for in the past. With South Korea's army getting better and North Korea's army literally shrinking (as famine reduces the size of recruits) and deterioratinng, air and sea power will be our biggest contribution to defending South Korea and those assets are not stressed at all by Iraq and Afghanistan. And the North Koreans don't even know if their large army will obey orders to march south:

It's gotten to the point where North Korean generals are not sure their troops would follow through if ordered to attack the south. So there you have it. Unreliable troops and missiles, untested nukes and a North Korean population that is starving to death. And none to happy with their present leaders. Perhaps it's no surprise that the North Korean leadership acts a bit mad. They have a lot to be mad about.

And I'll add my basic rule of thumb: it is better to stop the nutballs from getting their first nuke than stopping the nutball from getting their second (or even tenth) nuke.

We can't count on the North acting rationally as we see rationality of course. With all the things that the daring porcupine has to worry about, they just might think invading South Korea is the only way out of their cage.

All the more reason for our partners in the talks to get serious about pulling the quills on this beast. Remember, they will pay the highest price for failure. Well, the second highest, since North Korea would end as an entity should it come to war. Don't bet on the porcupine against a bunch of tigers.

North Korea counts on us panicking and forking over money as we've done in the past. Have patience. Time is not on their side.