North Korea has nukes; now what?

Military analysis.
Oct. 9 2006 5:44 PM

North Korea Tested an Atom Bomb; Now What?

Four potential scenarios—all bad.

Kim Jong-il. Click image to expand.

Kim Jong-il has now done what the Iranian mullahs are still a few years from accomplishing and what Saddam Hussein never came close to pulling off. He has apparently exploded an atom bomb. He probably can't yet pack a nuke into the nose cone of a missile or drop one from a plane. But as the term is generally (and aptly) defined, North Korea is now a nuclear-armed power. What's the rest of the world going to do about it?

The "international community" has a chance to behave as if the term were more than a polite or ironic euphemism. If there's a single national leader in the world who likes this new development, he hasn't said so. The U.N. Security Council quickly voted 13-0 to condemn the nuclear test. Several nonmembers have joined in the criticism. Now all we need is a next step—action.

This is nothing to shrug off. The combination of Kim Jong-il and a nuclear arsenal is a nightmare. It doesn't mean he's going to fire A-bombs at the United States or, for that matter, at South Korea or Japan. Kim may be a monster, but he's not suicidal; his top priority is the survival of his regime, and he must know that a nuclear attack would be followed by obliterating retaliation.

But what nuclear weapons do provide is cover for lesser sorts of aggression. The "club" of nuclear nations is a sort of mafia. The bomb provides protection, and thus a certain swagger, whether the other club members like it or not.

It doesn't take more than a handful of nukes to become a "made man" in this club. If Saddam Hussein had possessed some nukes in 1990, before he invaded Kuwait, it is doubtful that the U.S.-led coalition (and that really was a coalition) would have mobilized armed forces to push his troops back. If Mao Zedong had not possessed an atomic arsenal in 1969, during intense border clashes with the Soviet Union, it is likely that Leonid Brezhnev would have mounted an invasion. More to the point, without the nukes, Mao wouldn't have had the nerve to trigger the border clashes to begin with.

Kim Jong-il—like his father, Kim Il-Sung, before him—has kept his tiny, impoverished country afloat all these decades precisely by stirring up trouble and provoking confrontation (to justify his totalitarian rule), then playing his bigger neighbors off one another (to keep the tensions from spinning out of control and into his borders). His quest for nukes was propelled by a desire for the ultimate protection, mainly against an American attack. But now that he has them, he can be expected to play his games of chicken more feistily—and with still more opportunities for miscalculation.

Sunday's nuclear test has four other potential, dreadful consequences.

First, Kim Jong-il could churn out more bombs and sell at least some of them to the highest bidders. North Korea is dreadfully short of resources; his scheme to counterfeit American money has run into roadblocks; nukes might be his new cash cow. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush rallied domestic support by invoking the image of Saddam Hussein selling A-bombs to al-Qaida. It was a highly improbable scenario; even if Saddam had been building A-bombs, he would almost certainly have kept them under tight control. Kim, on the other hand, is a guerrilla-anarchist; he maintains his power not by trying to shape, or seek greater influence in, the international system but rather by throwing the system into a shambles. He's much less likely to have qualms about trading bombs for hard currency, regardless of the customer.

The second possible consequence of a nuclear North Korea is the unleashing of a serious regional arms race. The Japanese have long had the technical know-how and the stash of plutonium to build atomic (or possibly even hydrogen) bombs. They've foresworn that route because of moral qualms stemming from their own militarism in World War II. They also cite their security arrangement with the United States. But it's an open question how long these 60-year-old qualms would endure in the face of a clear and present danger. Just last month, a Japanese think tank run by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone published a study calling on the nation to "consider the nuclear option." North Korea's nuclear test can only fuel these temptations.

If Japan goes nuclear, the Chinese might decide that it's in their security interests to resume nuclear testing. China's moves could incite India to accelerate its nuclear program, which would almost certainly compel Pakistan to match that effort. The South Koreans, meanwhile, might feel they need their own bomb to deter any crazy ideas from their northern neighbor, which could push the cycle into still higher gear.

Third, it's a fair bet that the Iranians will be closely watching the coming weeks' events. If the world lets tiny, miscreant, destitute North Korea—the freaking Hermit Kingdom—get away with testing a nuke, then who will stop the oil-rich, leverage-loaded, modern-day Persian Empire from treading the same road?

For many reasons, then, the world's major powers and organizations—if they have any capacity for coordinated action—must take actions to punish Kim Jong-il for what he has done, not to pound him with airstrikes (for better or worse, an impractical option), but to make his regime suffer in all other ways, to let those around him know that his actions are the cause of their suffering.

However, this leads to a fourth risky scenario that Sunday's test has set in motion: the danger of escalation and war.

A plan of economic pressure or sanctions depends crucially on cooperation from China. Without Chinese food, fuel, and other forms of aid, Kim Jong-il's regime would soon crumble. And that's the problem: The Chinese don't want the regime to crumble, for their own security reasons. It's a delicate matter to punish Kim just enough to affect his actions but not enough to trigger his downfall. The question is whether pressure from other countries—or the Chinese leaders' own anger at Kim's defiance of their warnings not to test—will lead them to walk this line and decide whether such a balancing act is possible.

It may well be that, back in 2003, the Chinese took the lead in creating a diplomatic forum to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis because they thought the Bush administration was about to order a military strike. They relaxed their sense of urgency once they realized a strike wasn't imminent after all. (This theory is held not only by White House hawks but also by many outside specialists who have pushed for direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.)

It is therefore conceivable that, in light of Sunday's test, some White House officials are proposing, once again, to send signals of impending military action against North Korea—if just to unnerve Beijing into going along with sanctions. The danger, of course, is that such stratagems can spiral out of control: Signals can be misread, threats can escalate to gunshots.

The current predicament is the outcome of three missteps: a major strategic blunder by President Bush (who refused to negotiate with the North Koreans when they were practically begging for talks and their course was still easily reversible); an only slightly less gigantic blunder by Chinese President Hu Jintao (who thought he could bring the North Koreans in line with minimal arm-twisting); and severe miscalculations, from start to finish, by Kim Jong-il (who thought Washington would have leapt at negotiations by now and who, apparently, didn't think his nuclear test would cause quite such excitement).

So, here we are. The two major powers in this confrontation are led by blunderers; the provocateur is a chronic miscalculator. It doesn't look good.