Friday, March 24, 2017

The Dawn of Interesting Times

Our Secretary of State says our strategy has not stopped North Korea's drive to get nukes and that we have to be prepared to do more. It is hard to argue with that assessment.

Well, that sucks:

North Korea has likely mastered the technology to power the different stages of an intercontinental ballistic missile and may show it off soon, analysts say, but is likely still a long way from being able to hit the mainland United States.

Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam were unavailable for comment.

Yeah, we're running out of time to resolve the North Korea issue short of coping with their nuclear arsenal:

Speaking in Seoul after visiting the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean peninsula and some of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, Tillerson said former President Barack Obama's policy of "strategic patience" towards Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs was over.

"We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures. All options are on the table," Tillerson told a news conference.

He said any North Korean actions that threatened U.S. or South Korean forces would be met with "an appropriate response," turning up the volume of the tough language that has marked President Donald Trump's approach to North Korea.

To be fair to President Obama, I had no problem with a policy of "strategic patience" even though it looked suspiciously like doing nothing. Even before Obama, I just wanted to avoid another (Bill) Clinton-era deal that pretended to solve the problem.

I figured a policy of talking while giving few concessions would buy time to cope with a nuclear North Korea:

So let the talks drag on. I don't care. We can't let the North Koreans succeed in holding their own people hostage confident that we will care more for their welfare and so give in to save them.

In time, we will have missile defenses. In time, our Army won't be busy in Iraq. In time, even the South Koreans may start to worry about Pyongyang if the North rattles sabres to get our attention.

So when the Pillsbury Nuke Boy issues more threats, we and the Japanese should just smile and nod--and keep on talking. We have no business guaranteeing the survival of such a beastly regime as North Korea demands we do. If North Korea wants to survive, they need to start addressing our security worries.

In the end, starving people may well rise up because they'll have no fears of consequences. At worst, they will be too weak to be much of a threat to South Korea.

Nearly twelve years later after a policy of essentially "talk, talk; die, die," there has been no uprising and no collapse before North Korea could stand at the cusp of being a nuclear-armed state. Pity, but I don't think that counting on the death of the regime or even state was a bad bet to make at the time.

On the bright side, as I suggested, with time we are deploying missile defenses, our Army isn't busy in Iraq, and the South Koreans are indeed worried about North Korea after abandoning--for now, we'll see what happens with a new president there--their aid-based outreach to the north.

And North Korea's conventional threat to South Korea has degraded so much that South Korea now thinks of going north in a conflict with North Korea.

But with North Korea close to having nuclear missiles, something must replace what we had.

Yet talking is unlikely to work. It didn't work in the 1990s and post Libya War, it sure isn't going to work now (although like Iran, North Korea is no doubt willing to pretend to stop nuclear work if we pretend to believe them). Why?

Because the 2011 Libya War proved that even a non-threatening dictator who gives up nukes peacefully is at risk from American military power (quoting the New York Times here):

The [US intelligence] assessment said that the example of what happened to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longtime leader of Libya, had played a critical role in North Korean thinking. Colonel Qaddafi gave up the components of Libya’s nuclear program in late 2003 — most of them were still in crates from Pakistan — in hopes of economic integration with the West. Eight years later, when the Arab Spring broke out, the United States and its European allies joined forces to depose Colonel Qaddafi, who was eventually found hiding in a ditch and executed by Libyan rebels.

I noted the irony of liberals saying the Iraq War proved that dictators needed nukes to deter America then backing a president who waged war on Libya:

By attacking a thug dictator in Libya who had already given up his nukes to the West under the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (people from their own government), President Obama proved that Khadaffi really did need nukes to deter an American regime-change attack even though Khadaffi posed no threat at all to America.

Until the Libya War, thug rulers who minded their own business and did not pursue nukes were not at risk of attack by America. Liberal Iraq War critics had it exactly reversed. Potential nukes (although Iraq was much farther from that objective in 2003 than it had been in 1990) were the trigger for the Iraq War and not the thug regime. Until Libya, that is, which was the Obama implementation of the liberal delusion of the Bush rule.

And President Obama made the motivation to have nukes even worse than that, as I note in that post, when Russia got away with dismembering Ukraine despite Ukraine giving up their nukes in exchange for a promise by Russia not to attack and a promise by America and Britain to enforce that Russian promise:

So to recap. Under the Actual Bush Rule, aggressive thug dictators who pursue WMD draw our attention and risk their regimes; under the Obama Rule/Leftist Defined Bush Rule, thug dictators without WMD draw our ire and risk their regimes; and under the Putin Corollary to the Obama Rule with an assist by the Obama Proviso, governments that are not aggressive and not bloodthirsty need nukes rather than diplomatic agreements to maintain their independence and territorial integrity.

So even our friends have to worry that having no nukes but America as a friend is the reverse of what they need. If North Korea goes nuclear, will South Korea, Japan, or even Taiwan follow? Will Vietnam and Australia start to ponder that course?

Unfortunately, a replacement strategy to cope with North Korea now needs to address the motivation of potential targets of a nuclear-armed North Korea deciding to get nukes, and the potential nuclear domino trail of other states that don't want to be the last one in the neighborhood to have their own nuclear deterrent.

Does that replacement strategy need to include a disarming strike or regime change for North Korea? I don't know. But I think we can consider alternatives if stopping motivation for proliferation isn't high on our list of objectives.

I do believe that North Korea has a sort of rationality that--with caveats about what is rational from their point of view--could allow for a more traditional policy of containment and nuclear deterrence that I don't think is possible with an Islamist regime like Iran (the Shia Islamist version) with nukes.

It is possible we can still hope for the death of North Korea if we don't prop them up--"contain, deter; die, die," I suppose. This might be the least bad of our options.


There is one gaping hole in my hope to contain North Korea. That hope rests on North Korea being an isolated problem.

If containing a nuclear North Korea makes other problems worse, then containment is perhaps not ideal. As I say, will our friends go nuclear and then prompt China to increase their nuclear arsenal, with effects on Russia and India?

And worse, what if North Korea isn't just cooperating on nukes but plans to sell nuclear weapons to country that can't be reliably deterred--like Iran? That has long been my worry.

And this news doesn't make me feel better on this score:

North Korea has doubled the size of its facility for enriching uranium in recent years, according to the United Nations’ top nuclear inspector, who voiced doubt that a diplomatic agreement can end leader Kim Jong Un’s weapons programs.

I do worry that North Korean increases in plutonium and uranium production capacity are in part intended to provide enough material to support the export of nukes to their prime customer Iran.

If Iran goes nuclear, Saudi Arabia will follow. Perhaps Egypt. And Turkey won't want to be the last player contending for dominance in the Middle East to have nukes.

Years ago when I believed we could contain North Korea if they get nuclear weapons, I also believed that before North Korea went nuclear we would have helped Iranians succeed in a real revolution against the mullahs (instead of siding with the mullahs in 2009 when Iranians took to the streets).

If that Iran regime change had taken place--or if we had carried out a disarming strike campaign on Iran's nuclear infrastructure as Plan B--North Korea would have remained a mostly isolated problem with their prime customer out of business. We could have contained that kind of problem, as awful as that problem is.

But North Korea has a potential customer. And the examples of Libya and Ukraine show what happens when you don't have nukes to deter invasion.

So instead, a nuclear-armed North Korea will likely be the start of a chain of decisions in Asia and the Middle East that will proliferate nuclear weapons.

Have a super sparkly day.

UPDATE: Relevant cheery thoughts from Austin Bay.

UPDATE: More from Bay. We are running out of time for non-strike options to work.