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What Surprise?

The Nuclear Core of North Korea's Strategy

By Nicholas Eberstadt
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page A15

North Korea's declaration that it possesses nuclear weapons and intends to hold on to its nuclear arsenal "under any circumstances" was greeted with shock and astonishment in much of the world. In fact, the most astonishing part of this momentous development was the fact that North Korea's bold move has come as a surprise, both in Washington and abroad.

The North Korean government did not suddenly claim to join the world's nuclear weapons club on a bizarre and inexplicable whim. The announcement represented the entirely predictable culmination of decades of careful, painstaking, costly efforts and calculations. Until we appreciate the thinking that animates North Korea's quest for weapons of mass destruction, we are going to face the prospect of ever more unpleasant and expensive surprises from Pyongyang.

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The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a state unlike any other -- a political construct especially and particularly built for three entwined purposes: to conduct a war, to settle a historical grievance and to fulfill a grand ideological vision.

The vision is reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the "independent, socialist" rule of the DPRK -- i.e., unconditional annexation of present-day South Korea and liquidation of the Republic of Korea government.

The grievance is the failure of the famous June 1950 surprise attack on South Korea -- an assault that might well have unified Korea on Pyongyang's terms but for America's military intervention. In Pyongyang's telling, it is only America's continuing imperialistic support that has kept a rotten and unviable South Korean government alive since 1950.

And the war that North Korea has prepared for is not some future theoretical contingency. In the view of North Korean leaders, their country is at war today. Although we are sometimes inattentive, the fact is that the Korean War's battles were halted only through a 1953 cease-fire agreement. The Korean War is, from the DPRK's standpoint, an ongoing conflict -- and North Korea's leadership is committed to an unconditional victory, however long it might take and however much it might cost.

North Korea maintains a vast conventional army with a failing, Soviet-type economy. Obviously, that force could not prevail over the combined South Korea-U.S. alliance. Thus the neutralization, and removal, of the United States from the Korean equation is imperative from Pyongyang's perspective.

But that objective cannot be achieved by the DPRK's conventional capabilities -- today or in the near future. To achieve this goal, North Korea must possess nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of delivering them into the heart of the American enemy. This central strategic fact explains why North Korea has been assiduously pursuing its nuclear and missile development programs for more than 30 years -- at terrible expense to its people and despite all adverse repercussions for its international relations.

Several important implications flow from North Korea's conception of, and strategy for, its program to develop weapons of mass destruction.

First, continuing and escalating international tensions are not accidental and unwelcome side effects of the program -- they are its central purpose. North Korea has already used the threat of having weapons of mass destruction to extract de facto international extortion payments from the United States and its allies, and to force the United States to "engage" Pyongyang diplomatically, on Pyongyang's terms.

The greatest potential dividends for North Korean nuclear and ballistic diplomacy, however, still lie in store -- and this brings us to a second point. For more than half a century, U.S. security policy has been charged with imposing "deterrence" on Pyongyang. But hasn't Pyongyang also been thinking about how to "deter" the United States over those same long decades? Nuclear weapons (especially long-range nuclear missiles) might well answer the "deterrence question" for the North Korean state.

Faced with the risk of nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland, Washington could hesitate at a time of crisis on the Korean Peninsula. And if Washington's security commitment to South Korea were not credible in a crisis, the military alliance would be dead in all but name. North Korea's nuclear weapons program, in short, may be its best hope for achieving its dual objectives of breaking the U.S.-South Korea military alliance and pushing American troops off the peninsula.

Third, those who hope for a "win-win" solution to the current nuclear impasse must recognize the plain fact that North Korea does not engage in "win-win" bargaining and never has. The historical record is clear: Pyongyang believes in zero-sum solutions, preferring not only victories but also face-losing setbacks for its opponents. To Pyongyang, "win-win" solutions are not only impractical but immoral.

Finally, those who believe that a denuclearization of North Korea is still possible through some future negotiating breakthrough must consider what such an outcome would look like to Pyongyang today -- from the standpoint of the real, existing North Korean state, not some imaginary DPRK we'd rather be talking to. No matter how large and reassuring the payoff package, the achievement of "complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization" would consign North Korea to a world measured by the metrics of peaceful international competition -- and thus to a role more in consonance with the size of its gross domestic product. No current North Korean leader is likely to regard such a proposal as a bargain.

Kim Jong Il is doing his best to make the world safe for the DPRK. Our task, by contrast, is to make the world safe from the DPRK. This will be a difficult, expensive and dangerous undertaking. For America and its allies, however, the costs and dangers of failure are higher -- incalculably higher.

The writer holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was adapted from testimony before the House International Relations Committee on Feb. 17.


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