by Robert Hunter
US failure to implement fully the nuclear deal with Iran, perhaps even abrogating it while also continuing to isolate the country internationally, guarantees further erosion of Washington’s already slim diplomatic opportunity to forestall North Korea’s pursuit of a capacity to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. Even though Iran and North Korea are 4,000 miles apart and seem in Washington to be in different policy universes, they are in fact closely linked.
This is a high price for the US to pay to respond to the desire of some US Middle East allies and their supporters in this country to punish Iran, especially for behavior that does not directly affect US security.
The stakes are immense. For the first time since 1991, the United States faces a potential threat from a country with nuclear weapons that is openly hostile to the United States. North Korea has not only developed and tested nuclear weapons and claimed that it has some form of “hydrogen” weapon, but it has been developing and testing increasingly sophisticated and longer-range missiles that might be able to carry a nuclear warhead that could survive the rigors of reentry. How much of Pyongyang’s claims for its weapons capabilities are fact and how much are fiction is beside the point: the United States must henceforth treat the DPRK as a country that in the relatively near future will be able to bring some portion of the US mainland under nuclear attack— unless it can somehow be convinced to change course.
Despite all the discussion about alternatives open to the United States, only two are realistic: convincing North Korea to abandon its bomb and delivery system capabilities and/or deterring an attack on the United States (and allied countries). A third option, intercepting North Korean missiles with anti-ballistic missiles, is problematic. A further alternative, a preemptive attack on North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, is possible, but would impose a prohibitive price: the almost certain destruction of a large part of South Korea, notably Seoul, by North Korean conventional weapons.
Unless there is decisive change in North Korean behavior, the United States needs to bring out of storage concepts and capabilities from the Cold War, for two purposes. The first is mutual deterrence, where the US and North Korea each tries to forestall the other from attacking, lest both suffer major destruction. The second was developed for Western Europe during the Cold War and entailed extending the US deterrent umbrella to cover its NATO allies.. It was difficult enough then to convince them that the United States had tied its very existence to deterring a Soviet military attack on Western Europe. It would be harder to convince Asian allies of a similar linking of the US destiny to theirs in the face of a potential North Korean attack on them but not on us. US strategic thinking about these twin deterrence problems has hardly begun, much less the embedding of the issues involved in US security and political culture.
The United States has repeatedly gone to the United Nations Security Council to ratchet up sanctions on North Korea. It has succeeded, as recently as this past week, with a unanimous decision that also included China and Russia—but after, at their insistence, watering down some of the strictures. But sanctions, certainly on their own, have little if any hope of working. Unfortunately, for many years too many people in the United States have convinced themselves that economic sanctions are a potent weapon. That is rarely the case, and there is no evidence that sanctions work against a country, like North Korea, that believes its security to be at risk, including its key interest in “regime survival.”.
In recent months, the United States has asserted that it has no interest in changing the regime in Pyongyang or in pushing for reunification of the two Koreas except in circumstances to which the two countries agree. But the US has no credibility on this point. Indeed, regime change has been a US policy regarding the DPRK since the Korean War six decades ago (as it also is toward Iran). Further, from the North Korean perspective, US military activities around North Korea show hostile intent, or at least Pyongyang can exploit them for internal purposes. Washington believes that it needs such activities to reassure Japan, South Korea, and other East Asian allies (plus Taiwan), and also to make China and maybe Russia uneasy about what the United States might do militarily.
Yet assurances that the United States has abandoned any ambitions of North Korean regime change are further undermined by what the US has done in the Middle East in recent years. North Koreas’ Kim Jong Un can’t be oblivious to what happened to Libya’s Qaddafi after he gave up his country’s nuclear program or what happened to Saddam Hussein.
Even more important and more immediately relevant, Chairman Kim Jong Un must be aware of US behavior toward Iran since it accepted draconian limits on its nuclear program. Not just has the United States been slow to meet its obligations in lifting nuclear-deal-related sanctions but President Trump has said more than once that he might not next month recertify that Iran is in compliance with the agreement, despite testimony by the International Atomic Energy Agency to the contrary. Even though he seemed this week to back away from this threat, he did say that the Iranians “have violated so many different elements, but they’ve also violated the spirit of that [nuclear] deal. And you will see what we’ll be doing in October. It will be very evident.”.Further, Congress is imposing more sanctions, and senior US officials are stigmatizing Iran as being, the Islamic State aside, the worst “bad actor” in the Middle East.
For Kim Jung Un, there can be only one conclusion: he must get nuclear weapons and the ability to strike the United States.
Maybe a different approach to Iran would not convince Kim Jung Un that U.S. assurances on regime change can be trusted. However, without such a different approach, the chances are zero. The choices the United States has made regarding Iran have limited, even more than they would already be, Washington’s options regarding North Korea. Further, given that the North Korean nuclear gun threatens the United States but the US is not directly threatened by Iran, a split has opened up between US strategic interests and those of some Middle East allies, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia. Over time, the implications could be profound.
The entire issue of diplomacy thus comes down to China (with a bit part for Russia). But it’s not clear that Beijing has the needed leverage, and their willingness to make bringing North Korea to heel is in doubt. American Sinologists do tell us that Beijing would not want to see the North Korean regime collapse, lest many thousands of refugees would pour across the Yalu. Nor can China be indifferent to the possibility of a unified Korea, especially one with nuclear weapons that cleaves to the US as a counterweight to Chinese influence.
But China is unlikely to act against North Korea if the United States links the North Korean issue to other aspects of Sino-American relations. Economic interdependence between Washington and Beijing already limits each country’s flexibility, and thus this instrument is not available to Washington. Nevertheless, China might anyway decide to do what it can regarding North Korea for two reasons. First, Beijing is generally cautious about events in its neighborhood that do not directly impinge on what it sees to be its national patrimony (notably Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea). Second, China fears that either Japan or South Korea or both would opt for nuclear weapons. This may have become more likely given comments by candidate Donald Trump last year about the possibility of South Korea and Japan getting nuclear weapons, which raised doubts there about US security commitments.
This is not a pretty picture for the United States, but it is a realistic one. In the world in which the US now must live, in an increasing number of situations America’s military superiority cannot guarantee outcomes that favor US. national security. For the first time, nuclear proliferation, beyond Russia and China, now has a direct impact on US security in the homeland. Iran and North Korea do not exist in separate boxes. Even if China were prepared to bring maximum pressure to bear on Kim Jong Un, by damaging or destroying the Iran nuclear deal the United States would only reinforce North Korea’s current commitment to being able to strike the US with nuclear weapons.
Photo: Iran and North Korea discuss ties.