North Korea’s unsuccessful attempt to put a communications satellite in space last week was doubtlessly timed to throw a monkey wrench into President Barack Obama’s visit to Europe.
To some degree, focus shifted from NATO’s 60th anniversary and Obama’s nuclear weapons speech to North Korea and Iran. And the Sunday morning TV talk shows predictably were filled with empty rhetoric about taking strong action and not let dear leader Kim Jong Il get away with international blackmail through missile diplomacy.
A battle tested U.S. Army general once advised me that it was bad form to “get treed by piss ants!” We in the United States often fall prey to that syndrome. President Mahmoud Ahmadinnejad and Kim may not be ants. But they certainly aren’t giants either.
History matters. During the Cold War, the United States was understandably paranoid about the Soviet Union and China developing nuclear weapons with ostensibly irrational leaders in charge. Before Stalin tested his first A-bomb in 1949, some Americans called for preemption and preventative war to prevent Soviet Russia from going nuclear. Similarly, China and Mao Zedong, with whom we had fought a bloody war in Korea in the early 1950’s, raised similar fears before the 1964 tests made Beijing a nuclear power.
But Stalin and his successors were very cautious, far more so than a succession of American presidents believed. And despite the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s when China seemed to have gone collectively berserk, China believed in a minimum deterrent and pledged not to use nuclear weapons first. Of course, in the heat of the moment, no one knows whether such pledges would be honored.
Iran is neither Soviet Russia nor China. It is still a relatively open society run by a mullahocracy. That does not make it irrational despite some of the antics of its president.
North Korea is perhaps closer to the Soviet Union and China in the periods when both were highly authoritarian long before the Cold War ended and triangular politics had exploited the huge rivalries and animosities that separated the two Communist states. There is also a million man army that could wreck much of South Korea’s prosperity before it in turn was defeated or destroyed. And tensions with Japan persist on both sides of the 38th parallel.
North Korea’s nuclear tests last year were a fizzle. No doubt Pyongyang has a nuclear device. Whether Kim possesses a real and usable weapon is another matter. And the missile test was a failure. That does not mean North Korea cannot develop usable warheads and launchers. For the time being, however, over reaction on our part is wasted energy.
Iran meanwhile claims that it has no nuclear weapons ambitions; that its programs are for the peaceful use of atomic energy. Most Americans are suspicious of that promise. And a good many believe that Iran will develop nuclear weapons or at least the capacity to build them if needed much as is the case with Japan. Israel remains on guard and has warned that a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is surely not unimaginable. How the Gulf States and Turkey would respond to Iranian nuclear weapons is also an important part of the equation.
That said, no one will be happy if both or either state develops real nuclear weapons capabilities. Beyond spending billions on missile defenses yet to be proven, since preemption or military action by the United States with or without allies seems entirely unrealistic and sanctions and other international leverage have not worked in the past, what should the Obama administration do?
First, expand the six party talks on Korea to include all known nuclear states. The principal purpose of this forum is to prevent the use or spread of nuclear weapons. A second aim is to prevent the spread of nuclear materials that could be used by terrorists and other groups. Pakistan and India should be included as well as Iran and Israel.
Second, the administration should begin talks with Russia, China Britain and France on developing an extended deterrent strategy for North Korea and Iran should it develop nuclear weapons. Such a regime would reassure regional states and provide an alternative for them other than building their own nuclear weapons. This could be done through language in the Non-Proliferation Treaty in which the five nuclear powers are obliged to protect other signatories from nuclear threats.
Third, the administration should follow the advice of my general friend and not get treed by either Kim or Mahmoud. And beyond the current carrots and sticks of diplomacy, wield a big stick in the form of a deterrent regime that will work as it did in the past against truly powerful nuclear armed states.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. This article was previously published as “Kim and Mahmoud” at UPI’s column, Outside View.