Sunday, October 08, 2006

North Korea's got da bomb

I must admit here I was wrong. I thought North Korea did not actually have nuclear weapon capability, but they just did a nuclear test. My reasons for coming to the conclusions I did was that just about no one goes around saying, "We've got nuclear weapons". They just do a nuclear test and take everyone by surprise. The reason for this is that they can suffer international sanctions if they get nuclear weapons, but once they have them, it is a done deal--there's no going back, take it or leave it. So the rest of the world simply must accept the reality of the situation.

North Korea, on the other hand, has been hinting that they have nuclear weapons for some time, but not doing a nuclear test (which, by its very nature, provides independent incontrovertible proof of their nuclear capability). Why do this? Because the US has flip-flopped on its commitments to help them build a nuclear power plant. Several times, the US promised to help them build this plant which would not allow uranium enrichment to military grade, in return for North Korea not pursuing its own nuclear power program, which would lead to bomb-grade uranium production, and eventually a nuclear bomb. Of course, since we switch from Democrat to Republican presidents and back and forth, we end up promising, then taking back our promise. North Korea then said, "OK, if you're not going to help us, then we're going to build a bomb." This generated a tepid response, more along the lines of, "Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq Oh, North Korea? Whatever. Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq" from the current administration. The administration seemed to understand the point I was making: no one claims to be building a nuclear weapon. They just test it when they're done and let the world come to its own conclusions. So Washington was going to call North Korea's bluff.

Well, I must admit, North Korea wasn't bluffing.

What next? Will North Korea attack the United States? The problem with making predictions is that it is hard to predict a single person. A mass of people is easier to understand. But North Korea really doesn't want to conquer the United States (or even "take away our freedoms") but just wants the US to make some concessions (like a power plant or aid or at least stopping our crackdown on North-Korean-made counterfeit US currency). That makes it unlikely that North Korea will actually launch a nuclear attack on the US or its neighbors or anyone. But they might use it as a negotiating chip, and if their bluff is called, they (I mean he) might feel obliged to go through with it just for honor's sake. But I was wrong before.

Another big problem is that this nuclear test helps Kim Jong Il domestically. Not that Kim Jong Il has to get votes in the next election, but no leader can survive a situation where he is universally hated for long. Kim is probably not hated, only because people in North Korea don't know any different. But the nuclear test is worth a bunch of kudos points and an occasion for patriotic fervor, which will mitigate any dissatisfaction with how the regime is handling domestic situations.

The other issue this raises is what should be done in response. The problem with going back to the negotiating table is that we reinforce an environment where the only way to get people to talk to you is to build your own nuclear bomb. This is a problem if you are against nuclear proliferation, as I am. One might argue that such an environment is the only reason we're in this mess right now. We need to create an environment where all the negotiation happens before anyone even threatens to build a nuclear bomb. And that's impossible because it means listening carefully and sympathetically to everyone who wants to talk to you.

What about a military response? Any such response would make many enemies of our friends in the region, and could give North Korea the excuse it needs to attack the US, and actually have some of the world on its side. Well, I don't know if anyone will be on its side, but Kim Jong Il might think they will, and so he might act accordingly. Of course, that's assuming Kim Jong Il actually wants to attack the US. It is notable that there was no military response to any country doing a nuclear test in the past. So an invasion or bombing in response to Pyongyang's actions would be hard to justify to the world.

There's another reason: the US has had a policy since the end of the Cold War to maintain the readiness to fight in two wars. We have those wars already: Afghanistan and Iraq. We don't have the strength to fight in three wars. We do have the capability of doing an aerial bombing raid on the palace, say, but it's not clear that this will do anything. Well, it might do one thing: right now the world is on our side in this: North Korea is clearly the bad guy. But if we respond with bombings (making good TV media copy), we equalize the moral high ground. And in return for nothing.

How about an economic sanctions approach? The problem is that we're already doing that to the maximum extent possible. So is just about everyone else. So what more can we do?

Well, it may be that the people who had been doing business with North Korea under the table might be tired of holding their noses and walk away from the deal. Perhaps. But given that their work was clandestine to begin with, they don't have to worry about public opinion, only their consciences, and somehow I don't think conscience is a high priority among that demographic.

What about doing nothing? This does have some appeal: no one can accuse the US of escalating anything, it has precedence (it's what was done whenever anyone else has done a nuclear test), and it doesn't reward North Korea for being bad. It's even possible to do this while looking strong domestically: just make condemnation speeches, impose economic sanctions (maybe the public won't notice that these sanctions are already in place), disband the six-nation negotiations (North Korea has been boycotting them anyway so this will have no effect), and say we will never talk with them again (a lie but who'll catch us on it?). And because of Iraq, no one will call Bush a roll-over.

And all of this of course is relevant to Iran, who has been denying that it is developing nuclear weapons, then winking out of the corner of its eye. "No, we're not developing nuclear weapons. But in case you see a mushroom cloud in, say, the next few weeks, remember, we have the right to do it." This is political gold for Ahmedinejad. Here's my analysis of Iran's nuclear program: Once upon a time, the people were upset about the Shah and ended up with the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The birth rate spurt under Khomeini turned into a large demographic of youth who don't know what it was like under the Shah (Khomeini encouraged couples to have lots of children) but don't especially like restrictions on their clothes, music, and so on. They voted in reformers like President Khatami. But unemployment was high and making a living was hard, and Khatami didn't deliver (mostly because he couldn't). The populace said, "fine, if you're not going to deliver for us, we're going to the other party." Ahmedinejad understands that this is the only reason he's in power, but he also knows he has as little chance at delivering economic prosperity as Khatami did. So he hints at building a nuclear program, which excites patriotic fervor, and people can forget that they have no jobs. This draws international criticism and threats, which emphasizes to the people that they really do need nuclear weapons. And so on.

Does Iran want to attack the US, or Israel, or anywhere else? Probably not. Those of us who watched the 1979 Revolution saw fanatic idealogues, but one thing about staying in power for 25 years: you get less radical and end up more for the status quo. Ahmedinejad, for all his demagoguery, doesn't actually want a war with the West or with Israel, or at least he has given little evidence that he is actually so blinded by his ideology that he's suicidal. In fact, he's been pretty cunning politically up to now, suggesting that he does have his wits together.

But the big issue is that our response to North Korea has vast implications for what will happen with Iran. There's the precedence issue, but also the more resources we throw at dealing with North Korea, the fewer resources we will have for Iran. And by "resources" I mean military, but also international opinion, political opinion domestically, etc.

Now, domestically, all of this can help the Republicans, as long as they can say, "The world is a dangerous place and we're the ones that can make you safer." These events strengthen the first part, anyway. I don't know if people will buy the second half of that.

Well, this is all familiar. A song by Tom Lehrer, anyone?


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