McNair Paper 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

Institute for National Strategic Studies

McNair Paper Number 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995


There is considerable attention being paid to the possibilities that North Korea is developing a nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, there is no certainty that the Pyongyang regime has not already developed a few clandestine nuclear weapons.

Intense negotiations-face to face, through the media, and through world diplomatic channels-and a rather public examina-tion of U.S. military options may have finally prevailed to avert a crisis. Had Pyongyang not begun to comply with requested inspections of its nuclear facilities, the ensuing crisis might have ended with economic sanctions against North Korea and with the possibility of further escalation of U.S. military actions.

It remains to be seen if the DPRK government will comply with the agreement negotiated in Geneva between U.S. ambassador-at-large Robert Gallucci and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, signed in North Korea on October 21, 1994.

If carried out as agreed, North Korea will "eliminate its current nuclear infrastructure, and with it, its ability to produce nuclear weapons and to come into full compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)." (Note 80) Elements of the agreement include these key points: (Note 81)

If implemented on both sides, the agreement may have frozen the DPRK nuclear weapons program at 1994 levels rather than letting it proceed to much high numbers of nuclear weapons. While it does not totally eliminate the DPRK arsenal, potentially one to four or five nuclear weapons, it could prevent the DPRK from developing a force of 40-50 or more nuclear weapons in a few years. The agreement, at least temporarily, ends a crisis that appeared headed for military conflict in the Spring and Summer of 1994.

In the best case scenario, this agreement could not only freeze the DPRK nuclear arsenal, it could lead to ultimate agreement to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, and open the DPRK to positive political changes that could result from continuous contact with the outside world.

In the worst case scenario, this agreement could come apart either because of DPRK violation of the agreements, or because of U.S. Congress or U.S. allies refusals to fund the agreement as negotiated. There is also the possibility that the DPRK has some clandestine nuclear facilities now operating that are not covered by the Galllucci-Sok Ju agreement, allowing them to quietly go about working toward an atomic bomb without legal or outside restriction.

The DPRK has a record of treachery and the government of Kim Jong Il must continue to be regarded as very dangerous. The late Kim Il Sung, leader of North Korea, was considered a sworn and bitter enemy of the United States (Note 82) and the Republic of Korea. In 1950 he initiated a war against South Korea, and his government was considered to have been behind the bomb explosion that killed eighteen high officials of the Republic of Korea meeting in Rangoon, Burma (now called Myanmar) in October 1983. (Note 83) The blast appears to have been an assassination attempt against South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan. North Korea attempted to decapitate the entire ROK ruling elite in one stroke. (Note 84) North Korea has been proven to be responsible for numerous acts of international terrorism, including blowing up of a South Korean airliner several years ago just to create chaos and fear in the South.

Kim Il Sung, like Saddam Hussein of Iraq, murdered freely to preserve his power and created a personality cult glorifying his role while setting up a totalitarian police state where coercion, ideology, and control of communications unite to immobilize dissent.

The "Great Leader's" son, the 52-year-old "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, is his successor and is regarded by some as at least as dangerous as his father. Indeed, he is not only seen as just as ruthless and hostile, but also a very strange personality. Some observers have speculated that he might even be psychotic. He is also blamed, rightly or not, for managing some of the terrorist acts of the North Korean state. (Note 85)

Since 1953, the North Korean regime has been deterred and contained by U.S. and ROK military power augmented by a one-sided U.S. advantage in nuclear arms. Whether the status quo can be preserved when both sides possess nuclear weapons is a good question.

After acquiring their own atomic arsenal, could Kim Jong Il and the Pyongyang regime be deterred from directly attacking the ROK as it has been restrained from doing since 1953? (Note 86) Or will the North Koreans be more likely to risk striking first in some future contingency, either with nuclear force, or with conventional forces, under the umbrella of their own nuclear deterrent force, to forestall a U.S. nuclear counterattack?

It appears likely that the United States will continue to retain an overwhelming nuclear capability vis-B-vis North Korea even if the DPRK has a few nuclear weapons or goes nuclear in the future. North Korean leaders, if they behaved rationally, would be deterred from action against the South by the threat of the U.S. conventional and nuclear forces.

Indeed, it is hard to see what North Korea would accomplish by attacking the South. It is very unlikely that the North Korean military could long prevail against the combined arms of the U.S. and ROK forces, even if they seized some initial advantages. Nor is it credible that rational leaders would go into nuclear combat with the world's largest superpower, but Kim Jong Il is known as a bizarre personality, surrounded perhaps by sycophants. Further, he has been isolated from the rest of the world his entire life. It is not certain what he might do in a stressful crisis or wartime situation, particularly if he felt his power and life threatened.

How much of a direct military threat is North Korea? Clearly, DPRK forces could not destroy the United States, and probably could not even reach it with a wounding blow at present. They could, at most, destroy major cities in the Republic of Korea, and perhaps in Japan if they possessed nuclear arms. Of course, terrorist acts versus the United States might be within the capability of the DPRK. (Note 87) Such an attack would trigger a U.S. nuclear response. In President Clinton's words, "we would quickly retaliate if they were ever to use a nuclear weapon. It would mean the end of their country as they know it." (Note 88)

Given U.S. escalation dominance, a North Korean attack on South Korea would make little sense so long as the Pyongyang regime believed that the U.S. threat to retaliate was credible, and had even a rudimentary appreciation of U.S. nuclear capabilities. The rational thing for North Korea to do, is to keep the peace.

Unfortunately, irrational leaders do appear on the world scene from time to time. (Note 89) Further, as the saying goes, just because you are paranoid, does not mean someone is not out to get you. North Korean fears of preemption are not entirely misplaced, especially if their behavior appears both irrational and very threatening as Pyongyang approaches entry into the nuclear club. Shrill, bizarre, and threatening North Korean behavior could prompt others to take preemptive action.

But would a preemptive strike to deny Pyongyang the bomb make any more sense than a North Korean attack on the South? Either action would likely trigger a bloody, second Korean war. The first one killed or wounded of 2.4 million soldiers including 136,528 Americans, 843,572 South Koreans, 520,000 North Koreans, and over 900,000 Chinese. (Note 90) In addition, it is estimated that over one million Korean civilians were casualties in the Korean Conflict.

Is it worth the price of another war to try to deny North Korea the atomic bomb when U.S. leaders do not yet know if they would be peacefully deterred by U.S. nuclear guarantees to South Korea? North Koreans have been deterred from war for 40 years by American and ROK military power and would be on the very short end of military capability in a future war.

Pyongyang would have to be suicidal to bring on such a war. Given this fact, it is better to give reason a chance to work on the North Koreans even if Kim Jong Il and his regime do not always appear to be reasonable.

Clearly, the North Korean regime has been hard at work to develop a nuclear expertise and capability. They have a complex of facilities in Yongbyon made up of an eight-megawatt research reactor, a five-megawatt power reactor, a 50-megawatt reactor still under construction, a nuclear fuel-rod fabrication plant, and a plutonium reprocessing installation. These are the facilities that will be shut down if the October 1994 pact is implemented. At Taechon they are constructing a 200-megawatt reactor and they have plans for a nuclear power plant at Sinp'o on the coast of the Sea of Japan. (Note 91) Work at these sites will be frozen and all reactors are to be shut down under the terms of the October 1994 US-DPRK agreement. (Note 92)

Ironically, the NPT that North Korea wants to withdraw from, offers legal protection against a preemptive attack against its nuclear facilities.

When the NPT was first created 25 years ago, the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom all pledged their intention to seek United Nations actions to assist any non-nuclear NPT signatory state that was subject to either nuclear threats or nuclear aggression.

Later, Presidents Carter and Bush also gave a public pledges that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear state party to the NPT. (Note 93) Thus, legally, the United States might be constrained from a nuclear PCP action. Of course, the United States would not use nuclear weapons first in any likely event. There are too many negatives associated with such an action.

Of course, a conventional PCP action would also be illegal in terms of international law since it would be an act of war. On the other hand, in U.S. domestic law using physical force is legal in cases where it could be proved that it was "anticipatory self defense." Preemptive counter-proliferation would be the inter-national analog to this.

CIA Director James Woolsey in a television interview on November 30, 1993, stated that U.S. intelligence believes that the North Koreans have enough weapons-grade plutonium for one or two bombs. (Note 94) This, of course, does not mean that they will use them, especially if confronted by a superpower with thousands of such weapons.

Nor is it known where, exactly, the North Korean weapons might be located. Nuclear weapons or the components for such weapons can easily be moved or buried deep underground. The exact location, very likely, could be very difficult to find and to target.

This perhaps leaves the North Korean reactors at Yongbyon, Taechon, and Sinp'o as possible targets for consideration. Even these might be very poor choices. If the reactors were critical, bombing them might cause radioactive fallout over civilian population centers (Note 95) across North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

At this point, due to the lengthly confrontation between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear operations, it would be next to impossible to achieve tactical surprise in any military operations directed against North Korean targets. Quite likely, any DPRK weapons and special nuclear materials are now in underground bunkers or caves, not vulnerable to conventional air attacks. Press accounts also indicate that Pyongyang has recently erected a substantial air defense around its major nuclear sites.

It would be surprising if the North Koreans were not on military alert and if they had not already taken countermeasures against possible military operations. They have been given ample warning signals by none other than President Clinton who told NBC's Meet the Press that, "North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb." (Note 96)

In another warning speech, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that, "If North Korea refuses the necessary inspections and refuses to resume a dialogue with South Korea on nuclear issues, then we are prepared to recommend that the United Nations Security Council consider options other than negotiations." (Note 97) Christopher appeared to be talking about economic sanctions rather than military action. Fortunately, the visit of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang to mediate the dispute shortly before Kim Il Sung's death led to a resumption of U.S.-DPRK negotiations and the October 1994 agreement to settle the issue peacefully.

Any U.S. preemptive action against Pyongyang's nuclear facilities would be made far more dangerous if the North Koreans could count on Chinese Communist intervention. China was willing to attack U.S. forces in Korea in October 1950 even though the United States had nuclear weapons at the time and China did not. It is not clear what a nuclear-armed China would do if North Korea were attacked in the future. China has refused to back economic sanctions against North Korea and conceivably might side with it again in a future conflict. Any uncertainty on this point should make the United States think again about such an action.

Nor would a U.S. attack on North Korean reactors and other nuclear facilities necessarily get full U.S. public support. The U.S. public will support short victorious military operations, but probably not military decisions that result in thousands of American deaths and casualties, particularly if there were non-military options that had not been thoroughly explored before taking military action.

Prior to the October 1994 diplomatic breakthrough easing the crisis, some U.S. officials considered North Korea to be a "test case for the Administration's commitment to preventing regional powers from developing nuclear weapons." (Note 98) However, the outcome of a decision to intervene is too uncertain and too risky to warrant U.S. military action.

Unfortunately, the certainty of a bloody conventional Korean War now, especially if made more dangerous and lethal by one or two North Korean nuclear weapons, outweighs the uncertain future risks created if the DPRK nuclear proliferation goes unchecked. Neither choice is positive, but the choice between jumping into war now, or taking a chance that it could be deterred, (Note 99) is not hard to make.

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