When the United States invaded Iraq, the explanation that the Bush administration gave to the world is that they were a hostile power that possessed weapons of mass destruction, which could eventually be used against the United States or its allies. As President George W. Bush said in a speech in 2002 in Cincinnati,
"[Iraq] is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism and practices terror against its own people. The entire world has witnessed Iraq's 11-year history of defiance, deception and bad faith... Some ask how urgent this danger is to America and the world. The danger is already significant, and it only grows worse with time."
As it only became clear in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, these words were not true. By 2003, Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, biological, chemical or nuclear. However, what strikes me is to see how true these same words are of North Korea today.
If anything, the case is worse: Kim Jong-Il's dictatorship is not seeking nuclear weapons; it already has them, as they reminded the world earlier today. They also have shown their willingness, if not their full capacity, of launching rockets into the atmosphere -of the same kind as those that can hold nuclear weapons. The rhetoric coming from the country's leadership could not be more inflammatory, having scrapped in January all agreements they had with South Korea since 1991 to lower military tension. In addition, after the United Nations Security Council condemned North Korea's failed missile test last month, North Korea demanded an apology, expelled all nuclear inspectors and affirmed that any sanctions against it following their missile test would be considered a "declaration of war".
The danger is already significant, and it only grows with time.
Political and military leaders in Seoul and Tokyo are having meetings about what to do in the face of this new, second North Korean nuclear test. Although, reportedly, the nuclear device North Korea detonated underground was fairly small (a "fraction" of the atomic bombs the US used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, says CNN), the situation is very worrying. Japan and South Korea would be the two countries most likely to receive a nuclear attack by the North, if that ever came to happen. But then, of course, nuclear weapons being much more effective as elements of deterrence, it is more than questionable whether North Korea would ever dare strike first with a nuclear device. Even more, consensus is that North Korea has not yet reached the technological capacity for creating nuclear weapons that could be fired in ballistic missiles.
Yet, that is not the point. Whether North Korea plans to use its "possibly one or two", definitely "less than 10", nuclear weapons (according to The Economist) against South Korea, Japan or America must not be the focus of the discussion. The theory of nuclear deterrence and its possible applications to the North Korean case also goes beyond the problem at hand. The crux of the situation is that North Korea will use this latest test to do the same thing it has always done with its few nukes: blackmail its Southern neighbor and the West. And the North's strategy will only have worked if they are rewarded for their misbehavior.
It seems that every American attempt to deal with North Korea has failed. Negotiations have been going on and off since 1994, and there has been little success, needless to say. Including North Korea in the "axis of evil", isolating the country, and using economic sanctions, as during the Bush administration, also failed. Typically, North Korea has toned down its rhetoric and seemed more willing to behave when they have been offered oil or money in exchange, as it happened in 2007. But typically, as well, every 'deal' there is with North Korea is followed by yet another advance in the country's race to become a full-fledged nuclear power.
They must be stopped. A functional nuclear weapon in the hands of an unpredictable regime led by a senile man and a ruthless military elite is not in anyone's best interest. The North Korean leadership will have an incentive to continue to advance their nuclear program, and conduct more provocative tests, as long as they keep receiving the world's attention and nothing else than a slap in the wrist in exchange. The problem is that there is little that can be done. An invasion of the country is completely out of the question: if there is anything in which North Korea excels it is military power, with its 1 million strong army. Tougher economic (i.e., trade) sanctions risk radicalizing the dictatorship even more, and they would probably affect ordinary North Koreans the most -and their government cannot be trusted to care much for their livelihoods.
Perhaps, the least painful option would be to apply targeted financial freezes against the assets of the North Korean state in foreign banks, while at the same time, signaling that the door to the Six Party Talks is still open. A travel ban on all members of the North Korean government, including the members of Kim Jong-Il's family, could also be part of the mix. But this seems too soft to me. Would further talks six months or a year from now, produce any tangible results? In 2008 it seemed that the North Koreans had finally agreed to dismantle their nuclear program, only to see it reemerge fantastically this year. Moreover, paying radical, nuclear-wannabe states so that they halt their weapon programs sets a terrible precedent on the international stage.
In this case, the "nuclear solution" could be, literally, the nuclear solution: giving a nuclear bomb to South Korea, more likely than not, would be the only way to make the North Koreans shut up, sit on the table, and have some serious negotiations. As a matter of fact, South Korea had the intent to develop nuclear weapons before 1975 (and it probably had a clandestine program well into the 1980s), when it acceded to dismantle its nuclear program under pressure from the United States. South Korea is now a signatory of the Non Proliferation Treaty, and it uses nuclear power for peaceful purposes only. Nonetheless, letting South Korea join the nuclear club now could be the only thing that will make the North want to negotiate -then, the goal to which both countries would aim would be the dismantlement of both their nuclear programs. The difference is that in those negotiations, the two countries would have the same things at stake, thus leveling the field and reducing North Korea's bargaining power, which at present is superior to the South's. It could also be the only way in which the West may succeed in its efforts to neutralize the most horrible dictatorship on the planet.
Yet, of course, this very dangerous solution could backfire. A nuclear South Korea would just make the North Koreans double their efforts to achieve full nuclear capability. And although deterrence theory has it that two nuclear countries are not expected to go to war with one another (guess why), many would say the risk is just too great to take. Certainly, China would also object loudly to having a replica of the Cold War world just next to its shores, and there would also be much opposition from Europe, the UN and other members of the international community. The move could also spark an arms race in Asia, leading other nations (Taiwan?) to pursue their own nuclear ambitions. Last but not least, it is extremely unlikely that this would be a solution that could please the Obama administration, or the American public. In one word, it is impractical.
Yet, for all its flaws, this same scenario worked during the Cold War: the reason why the USSR and the USA did not resort to direct conflict with each other for almost 40 years was the certainty that the enemy had the capability to destroy one's country entirely. The same logic has kept India and Pakistan from fighting another war, albeit in a tense and imperfect peace. And although North Korea's nuclear program is still too incipient to demand the radical solution of arming the South, this may be the only option that could stop the North from continuing to use its nukes for blackmail.
Nevertheless, in the world of practical solutions, financial and economic sanctions, travel bans, and the hope that Kim's thugs rejoin negotiations seem to be the only options on our menu.