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The Korean Nuclear Crisis

Preventing the truly dangerous spread of weapons of mass destruction

September-October 2003

As the United States was preparing to launch a war to counter Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons ambitions, a far greater disaster involving weapons of mass destruction was brewing half a world away. North Korea took steps to begin mass production of nuclear weapons, which are far more dangerous than the chemical and biological varieties. And there was no ambiguity about the intelligence on North Korea: for many years, American as well as international inspectors had been to Yongbyon, the site where North Korea's plutonium production took place. They had seen—even handled—the reactor fuel containing six bombs' worth of plutonium.

Yet in the fall of 2002, as North Korea's nuclear factory started up, all eyes—including especially those of the Bush administration—were on Iraq. How could this have happened, and what should be done now about the world's most serious nuclear crisis? To begin, it is useful to look at the almost identical situation in which the United States found itself in 1994.

Coming Close to War in 1994

I was then serving as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy. That year, I divided my time about equally between two looming nuclear disasters.

The first was the "loose nukes" threat from the former Soviet Union, which had recently disintegrated into 15 independent states. This was the first-ever collapse of a nuclear state—instant proliferation. I was in charge of the Nunn-Lugar program, through which the Pentagon offered Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus assistance in securing, moving, and dismantling nuclear weapons left scattered about the former Soviet Union. By tying the new countries to Western security structures, especially NATO's so-called "Partnership for Peace," all except Russia became persuaded to forswear nuclear weapons. With direct on-the-ground help, the United States turned these pledges into deeds: by 1996, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus no longer had nuclear weapons on their territory.

The second looming disaster, involving North Korea, had a far more ambiguous and temporary resolution. In the spring of 1994, as in the fall of 2002, North Korea was planning to take fuel rods out of its research reactor at Yongbyon to extract the six or so bombs' worth of weapons-grade plutonium they contained. The United States was trying to deal diplomatically with this threat, but in the Pentagon I was also exploring military options—what in today's exaggerated rhetoric would be called "preemption." Secretary of Defense William J. Perry ordered preparation of a plan to eliminate Yongbyon with an airstrike using conventional precision weapons. After very careful planning, we were confident that such a strike would collapse the reactor and entomb the plutonium as well as eliminate the other facilities at Yongbyon that were part of North Korea's plutonium infrastructure. In particular, we were confident that we could destroy a nuclear reactor of this kind, even while it was operating, without causing any Chernobyl-type radioactive plume to be emitted downwind—obviously an important consideration. Such a strike would effectively set back North Korea's nuclear ambitions many years.

While surgical in and of itself, however, such a strike would hardly be surgical in its overall effect. The result of such an attack might well have been the unleashing of the antiquated but large North Korean army over the Demilitarized Zone, and a barrage of artillery and missile fire into Seoul. The United States, with its South Korean and Japanese allies, would quickly destroy North Korea's military and regime—of that we were also quite confident. But the war would take place in the crowded suburbs of Seoul, with an attendant intensity of violence and loss of life—American, South and North Korean, combatant and non-combatant—not seen in U.S. conflicts since the last Korean War. Literally hundreds of thousands of casualties could result.

Fortunately, that war was averted by the negotiation of the so-called Agreed Framework. The Agreed Framework was and remains controversial, so it is important to know what it did and did not do. It froze operations at Yongbyon for eight years, verified through on-site inspection, right up until the fall of 2002. The six bombs' worth of plutonium was not extracted from the fuel rods, and no new plutonium was created during that period. Had the freeze not been in effect, North Korea could now have sufficient plutonium for about 50 bombs.

The Agreed Framework did not eliminate Yongbyon. In later phases specified by the agreement, Yongbyon was to be dismantled. But we never got to those phases. Nor could, or should, the Agreed Framework be said to have "eliminated North Korea's nuclear weapons program." Although the freeze at that site was perfectly verified, the agreement did not provide for regular verification to determine whether there was a Los Alamos-like laboratory designing nuclear weapons elsewhere in the country, or a hidden uranium-enrichment facility—which North Korea has in fact recently admitted to having. In addition, in 1989 North Korea had extracted plutonium from some fuel rods. The amount is unknown but could have been as much as one or two bombs' worth. No one outside North Korea now knows where that plutonium is. No technical expert doubts that North Korea could make a weapon—or maybe even two—out of it: a "starter kit" toward a nuclear arsenal. Although the later phases of the Agreed Framework called for North Korea to relinquish this material, these phases were never reached. Finally, the Agreed Framework did not stop the development, deployment, or sale of North Korea's medley of ballistic missiles.

From a threat perspective, therefore, the Agreed Framework produced a profoundly important result for U.S. security over a period of eight years—the freeze that is disastrously thawing as this article is written. But it was an incomplete result, as events four years later would show.

 

Meeting Face to Face

 

In August 1998, North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. The launch produced anxiety in Japan and the United States, calls for missile defense, and also calls for a halt to the implementation of the Agreed Framework. Of course, if the U.S. suspended the Agreed Framework, the North Koreans would unfreeze Yongbyon, and we would be back to the situation prevailing in the summer of 1994.

President Clinton recognized that between 1994 and 1998, the United States, relieved over the freeze at Yongbyon, had moved on to other crises like the Balkans and taken its eyes off North Korea. Not so the North Koreans. The president judged, correctly in my view, that the United States had no overall strategy toward the North Korean problem beyond the Agreed Framework itself. He asked William Perry, now retired from the defense department, to conduct a policy review, and Perry asked me to be his senior adviser—and so I was sworn in again as a government official.

We examined several options.

One was to undermine the North Korean regime and hasten its collapse. But we did not have evidence of significant internal dissent in this rigid Stalinist system—certainly nothing like that in Iraq, let alone Afghanistan—that could provide a U.S. lever. Then there was the problem of mismatched timetables: undermining seemed a long-term prospect at best, whereas the nuclear and missile problems were near-term. Finally, our allies would not support such a strategy and, obviously, adopting it openly could only worsen North Korea's behavior, prompting provocations and even war. Because an undermining strategy is precisely what North Korea's leaders fear most, suggesting such a thing as a U.S. strategy without any realistic program to accomplish it would be doubly counterproductive.

Another possibility was to advise the president to base his strategy on the prospect of reform in North Korea. Perhaps Kim Jong Il would take the path of China's Deng Xiaoping, opening up his country and trying to assume a normal place in international life. But hope is not a policy. We needed a strategy for the near term.

Summing up the first two options, our report stated, "U.S. policy must deal with the North Korean government as it is, not as we might wish it to be."

Another possibility was buying our objectives with economic assistance. But we concluded that the United States should not offer North Korea "tangible 'rewards' for appropriate security behavior; doing so would both transgress principles the United States values and open us up to further blackmail."

Ultimately, we recommended that the United States, South Korea, and Japan all proceed initially on a diplomatic course, but with a coordinated message and a negotiating strategy that mixed inducements and coercion. The verifiable elimination of the nuclear and missile programs was the paramount objective. Our decision not to undermine the regime could be used as a negotiating lever: much as we objected to its conduct, we could tell North Korea that we did not plan to go to war to change it. We could live in peace. But that peace would not be possible if North Korea pursued nuclear weapons. We could also argue that since North Korea had enough conventional firepower to make war a distinctly unpleasant prospect to us, it didn't need weapons of mass destruction to safeguard its security. This relative stability, in turn, could provide the time and conditions for a relaxation of tension and, eventually, improved relations—if North Korea transformed its relations with the rest of the world.

After many trips to the White House Situation Room, Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing to coordinate our approaches, in May 1999 we went to Pyongyang—the first visit by U.S. presidential envoys since the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953. During four remarkable days in the Potemkin-village capital of this impoverished, starving Stalinist throwback, we presented North Korea with two alternatives.

On the upward path, North Korea would verifiably eliminate its nuclear and missile programs. In return, the United States would take political steps to relieve its security concerns—the most important of which was to affirm that we had no hostile intent toward North Korea. South Korea and Japan would expand their contacts and economic links.

On the downward path, the three allies would resort to all means of pressure, including those that risked war, to achieve our objectives.

We concluded the policy review in 1999, and I stepped down from my advisory role. Over the next year, the last in the Clinton administration, North Korea took some small steps on the upward path. It agreed to a moratorium on tests of long-range missiles. It continued the freeze at Yongbyon. It embarked on talks with South Korea that led to the 2000 summit meeting of the leaders of North and South. But these steps were small, tentative, and reversible. Whether North Korea would have taken further steps on this path will never be known.

When it assumed the tiller in 2001, the new Bush administration at first suggested that it would follow the two-path approach of the Perry review. But soon the new president indicated that he would conduct his own review and come to his own conclusions about this odd and perplexing country. Some members of his administration appreciated, rightly, that the Agreed Framework had staved off nuclear disaster on the Korean peninsula for eight years. But others opposed the Agreed Framework, countering, also rightly, that it was at best a temporary solution that did not eliminate North Korea's plutonium program. Above all, President Bush indicated in several public statements that the whole matter of dealing with the North Korean regime "as it is, not as we might wish it to be" would not necessarily remain the basis of U.S. policy. First the president listed North Korea among the "Axis of Evil." Then he confided to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that he "loathed" Kim Jong Il.

But if regime change were to become the U.S. objective, how would American policymakers square that with Kim Jong Il's ability (unlike Saddam Hussein's) to launch a horribly destructive war? And if freeing North Korea from communist totalitarianism were to become the long-term objective of American policy, how in the near term could that regime be stopped from creating nuclear dangers that would long outlive it? The half-life of plutonium-239 in Yongbyon's fuel rods is 24,400 years, and surely that plutonium, once liberated from its fuel rods, would end up in other hands than Kim Jong Il's. The president's statements risked convincing North Korea that it would face U.S. hostility whether it went nuclear or not. "Moral clarity" does not easily lead to policy clarity, especially in the case of North Korea.

 

Toward Nuclear Terrorism?

 

That brings us to today's crisis. By late 2002, the Bush administration still did not have a policy. But North Korea had waited long enough and, in its inimitable fashion, began to move itself aggressively off Washington's "back burner." It admitted to having launched a uranium-enrichment program in parallel with its frozen plutonium program, withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and declared itself a nuclear power. Most ominously, it abandoned the freeze at Yongbyon—precisely the disaster we faced in 1994.

But as this new loose-nukes crisis unfolded and the options for dealing with it narrowed, the world did nothing—a situation especially ironic as the U.S. prepared to disarm Iraq of chemical and biological weapons by force. By now, as a result of American inaction, North Korea may have been able to truck the fuel rods away so they can neither be inspected nor entombed by an airstrike.

What continues to transpire at Yongbyon as this article is written is a stunning setback for decades of U.S. nonproliferation policy. Worse, fully two years after 9/11, it opens up a frightening new prospect for nuclear terrorism. There are at least five reasons why allowing North Korea to embark on serial production of nuclear weapons is an unacceptable threat to U.S. security.

• First, North Korea might sell excess plutonium to other states or terrorist groups. North Korea has few cash-generating exports other than ballistic missiles. Now it could add fissile material or assembled bombs to its shopping catalog. Loose nukes are a riveting prospect: although hijacked airlines and anthrax-dusted letters are a dangerous threat to civilized society, the ever-present possibility that a city could disappear in a mushroom cloud at any moment would utterly change the way Americans live.

• Second, if Kim Jong Il's government collapsed, loose nukes could fall into the hands of warlords or factions.

• Third, even if the bombs remain firmly in hands of the North Korean government, they are a huge problem: having such weapons might embolden North Korea into thinking it can scare away South Korea's defenders, weakening deterrence. Thus a nuclear North Korea makes war on the Korean peninsula more likely.

• Fourth, a nuclear North Korea could cause a domino effect in East Asia, as South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan ask themselves if their nonnuclear status is safe for them.

• Fifth, if North Korea, one of the world's poorest and most isolated countries, is allowed to go nuclear, serious damage will be done to the global nonproliferation regime. Imperfect though that system is, it has for decades helped keep all but a handful of problem nations from going nuclear.

The United States cannot allow North Korea to move to serial production of nuclear weapons. As the Bush administration struggles at last to formulate a strategy to head off this disaster, four principles should guide them:

• It must be made clear to North Korea that reprocessing the fuel rods at Yongbyon poses an unacceptable risk to U.S. security and that we are prepared, as in 1994, to use force to stop it.

• No American strategy toward the Korean peninsula can succeed if it is not shared by our allies, South Korea and Japan, and also by China. Our national interests and theirs are not identical, but they overlap strongly. They can provide vital tools to assist our strategy, or they can undercut our position if they are not persuaded to share it. Above all, we must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them to deter North Korean aggression.

• It is possible that North Korea can be persuaded to curb its nuclear ambitions—but it is also possible that the North has concluded that nuclear weapons are the only way a "loathed" regime can survive. Therefore we need to view diplomacy as an experiment, but an experiment that must be tried. Diplomacy with North Korea must have a coercive dimension, so economic strangulation and use of military force must be credibly on the table. But they can and should be used only when diplomacy has been shown to have been tried and failed.

• In any diplomatic discussion, the United States must ultimately obtain the complete and verifiable elimination of North Korea's nuclear program. There is much debate over what the United States should be prepared to give in return, and an aversion, which I share, to giving North Korea rewards that its regime can use for its own ends. But it would seem to me that there are two things the United States should be prepared to do.

First, there remains little reason to expect that North Korea will collapse or transform soon, or that the U.S. can accomplish either result soon enough to head off the country's acquisition of nuclear weapons. That being the case, a U.S. decision not to undermine the regime can be used as a negotiating lever: much as we object to its conduct, we can tell the North that we do not plan to go to war to change it. Only the U.S. can make this pledge, which is why direct talks are required.

Second, at some point Yongbyon must be dismantled, as must the centrifuges for enriching uranium, the ballistic missiles and their factories, and the engineering infrastructure that supports them. The U.S. can surely pledge to North Korea that we will assist in this process, both to hasten it and to make sure it takes place. This assistance would be similar to the historic Nunn-Lugar efforts to contain loose nukes after the Cold War.

 

Once nuclear weapons materials are made—either plutonium or enriched uranium—they are exceedingly difficult to find and eliminate. They last for thousands of years. There is no secret about how to fashion them into bombs. They can fall into the hands of unstable nations or terrorists for whom Cold War deterrence is a dubious shield indeed.

These facts describe America's—and the world's—dominant security problem for the foreseeable future. It is of the utmost importance to prevent the production of nuclear materials in the first place. The main strategy for dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons must be preventive. Our most successful prevention measures (such as the Nunn-Lugar program) have been conducted in cooperation with other nations—but in exceptional cases, it may be necessary to resort to the threat of military force to prevent nuclear menaces from maturing.

 

Ashton B. Carter is Ford Foundation professor of science and international affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, where he teaches courses on American national security policy and on dealing with weapons of mass destruction. He co-directs the Preventive Defense Project, a research collaboration of the Kennedy School and Stanford University. This article is based on his testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year.