Foreign Affairs

Obama’s Atomic Options

Soon North Korea will have nuclear-armed ballistic missiles with which to threaten its neighbors and the United States. President Obama must either accept the pariah state as an atomic power or stop that regime before it fully develops its nuclear arsenal.

Still lacking is a long-range ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead as far as America. Later this week, North Korea is expected to test such a missile.

North Korea has announced it will attempt to put a communications satellite into orbit between April 4 and 8. That effort is widely viewed as a thinly veiled pretext for testing its intercontinental ballistic missile, the Taepodong-2. Dennis Blair, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, told a Senate committee the three-stage Taepodong-2 has the potential to strike the continental U.S.

Another challenge for Pyongyang is the mating of an atomic warhead to a missile. Recently, however, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, testified North Korea “…may be able to successfully mate a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile.”

The last critical component is an effective atomic warhead. In 2006, North Korea exploded a small nuclear device and now claims it has “weaponized” enough of its plutonium stockpile to build four or five bombs. Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national defense policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes the North Koreans already have a small nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a medium range No-dong missile that would make a nuclear strike on Tokyo possible.

These atomic arsenal components — atomic weapons, the know-how to mate a warhead to a missile and a nuclear capable ballistic missile — constitute a serious warning for the U.S. and its Northeast Asian allies.

President Obama has three options to address North Korea’s atomic ambitions.

First, Obama could accept Pyongyang as an atomic power and deal with the potentially dire consequences.

There is, of course, the possibility that North Korea will change its behavior and become a responsible nation state. But that’s wishful thinking at best. It’s far more likely Pyongyang will continue its old ways of intimidation reinforced with deliverable nukes.

An almost certain consequence is a Northeast Asian arms race. There will be irresistible pressure for non-nuclear neighbors — Japan and South Korea — to acquire atomic weapons. China, which already has a large nuclear program, will likely grow its arsenal to off-set the rising threat from Asian rival Japan.

Most worrisome is the likelihood Pyongyang will add nuclear weapons to its catalog of items for sale to the developing world. It is already the biggest supplier of missiles to the third world, and recent activities suggest it has been a source for nuclear technologies.

In 2007, Israeli fighters destroyed a plutonium reactor reportedly built by North Korea in Syria’s eastern desert. There could be other North Korean-built reactors in the Middle East or elsewhere.

Obama’s second option could be to use diplomacy and the threat of sanctions. Candidate Obama advocated “…direct and aggressive diplomacy with North Korea that can yield results, while not ceding our leverage in negotiations unless it is clear that North Korea is living up to its obligations.”

Since the Clinton administration, North Korea has used the threat of nuclear-weapons development to extract concessions — food, fuel and security guarantees — from the U.S. and its Asian partners. A successful Taepodong-2 test would present a new danger — a nuclear tipped rocket that can reach the U.S.

Will “direct and aggressive diplomacy” stop Pyongyang’s atomic program? “Most of the world understands the game they [the North Koreans] are playing,” director Blair testified. “I think they’re risking international opprobrium [disgrace] and hopefully worse if they successfully launch it.”

Blair’s remarks suggest that efforts to restart talks which collapsed in December 2008 and were aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its atomic weapons program may be fruitless. But not everyone in the Obama administration agrees.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently hasn’t given up on diplomacy and sanctions. She warned “[t]here will be consequences” if North Korea goes forward with the launch. ”They have sought help for fuel and food. It would be difficult to provide those necessities” if the missile is launched.

North Korea labeled any action to punish them with more sanctions a “hostile act,” and Pyongyang cautioned that if its missile is shot down, an idea Clinton rejects, it will “mean a war.”

Apparently, Clinton believes “[t]he leaders of North Korea are not madmen,” an argument made by Cha Du-Hyeogn, a government defense analyst in Seoul. “They want attention, and they want rewards for not using these weapons,” Du-Hyeogn said.

Clinton must be open to this international extortion because she wants to “…get back to the kind of talks that led to the initial steps in their de-nuclearization.” But when she offered to send her special envoy to Pyongyang, “They didn’t want him to come,” Clinton said.

So how does Obama conduct “aggressive diplomacy” with Pyongyang when the communists won’t talk and sanctions don’t work? And how can Obama deal with a regime that insists it won’t give up atomic weapons unless “all other nuclear weapons states” disarm as well?

Obama’s third and only remaining option — if he doesn’t want a nuclear armed North Korea and doubts diplomacy and sanctions can halt Pyongyang’s atomic lust — must be force.

The president could order the interception of Pyongyang’s test missile. The head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Timothy Keating, said his command will “be ready to respond.”

U.S. and Japanese Aegis-equipped destroyers with Standard Missile-3 interceptors are now in the Sea of Japan. Japan has relocated ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors to Northern Japan, near the missile’s anticipated flight path. Both anti-missile systems could destroy the North Korean rocket.

It appears, however, that the U.S. systems will not be used. Asked about the possible launch on Fox News Sunday, Defense Secretary Gates said, “I would say we’re not prepared to do anything about it.”

Intercepting the missile — if we’d chosen to do so — could have been just the beginning. The U.S. and its allies should then have been prepared and willing to escalate the use of force based upon North Korea’s response.

In 2007, former Clinton defense secretary William Perry proposed the U.S. should consider military action against North Korea if that nation refuses to end its nuclear weapons program.

“Clearly, this is a dangerous alternative,” Perry testified. “If China and South Korea do not agree to applying coercion, the United States may be forced to take military action which, while it certainly would be successful, could lead to dangerous unintended consequences.”

If Obama follows the diplomacy route with Pyongyang as expected, he must avoid the Bush administration’s mistakes. In June 2008, the North Koreans promised to stop producing plutonium. In exchange, the Bush administration naively took Pyongyang off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and removed restrictions related to the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Bush’s deal also ignored critical North Korean atomic activities such as its uranium enrichment program and Pyongyang’s proliferation efforts. Bush failed to account for the North’s atomic arsenal as well.

Obama’s duty is to choose the course of action that keeps America safe. In the end, given the three painful options, the use of force to deny Pyongyang atomic weapons may be his best alternative. His propensity to go the diplomatic route despite its history of failure is, I suspect, the path he will take.


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