North Korea recently ordered United Nations inspectors to leave and announced that it intended to restart its nuclear facilities – most likely the reactor at Yongbyon, which is capable of producing weapons grade plutonium. The Obama administration’s response was predictable. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "We call on North Korea to cease its provocative threats." (An irony worth noting is that Gibbs also called upon North Korea "to honor its international commitments and obligations." Yet why would North Korea feel compelled to follow Gibbs’ admonition when the United States has not honored its commitment to disarm under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?)
Of course, Gibbs omitted an important detail. North Korea’s "provocative threat" was in response to the U.S.-led international condemnation of Pyongyang’s test of a rocket it claimed was for orbiting a satellite. Washington, however, claims the test was a cover for a long-range ballistic missile that could hit Alaska and Hawaii. So for all the talk of change during the presidential campaign, it would seem that the Obama administration is engaged in much the same policy toward North Korea as the Bush administration – giving further credence to Einstein’s definition of insanity: continuing to do the same thing but expecting different results.
To begin, it’s important to understand that a rocket is a rocket is a rocket. The reality is that a rocket capable of putting a satellite into orbit is also a rocket capable of being a long-range ballistic missile. So while there may be good reasons to doubt North Korea’s claim that their intention is to orbit a satellite, there is also no way for North Korea to test a rocket with the sole purpose of orbiting a satellite. In other words, space launch capability is dual-use. And it cuts both ways. For example, the United States has claimed that its continuing quest to build a missile-defense system is for defensive purposes only. Yet a system capable of intercepting a ballistic missile launched at the United States – particularly during the mid-course phase when the warhead is in space before it descends back into the atmosphere – is also capable of shooting down a satellite in orbit. Objectively, despite claims that such capability is for defensive purposes, it can be also construed as offensive in nature and thus threatening. Like beauty, everything is in the eye of the beholder.
And while North Korea claims the rocket test was a success, U.S. Northern Command – which tracked the missile test – asserts otherwise. A failed missile test is considered threatening and provocative? The world’s superpower is shaking in its boots over a flop? What’s wrong with that picture?
To be sure, a nuclear-armed North Korea (which conducted a nuclear test in 2006 to confirm its capability to build a nuclear weapon and is currently believed to have enough plutonium for six to eight) with long-range missile capability would not be a good thing, generally speaking. But in terms of U.S. security, that prospect – however undesirable and unwelcome – must be put in some perspective. Even if North Korea eventually had a handful of long-range nuclear weapons, that would still pale in comparison to the much larger (still thousands of nuclear weapons) and more technologically sophisticated and militarily capable U.S. nuclear arsenal, which would continue to be a powerful deterrent.
And the argument that deterrence doesn’t work against crazy dictators like "Great Leader" Kim Jong-Il belies the fact that the United States deterred Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, both of whom fall into that category. Moreover, the Soviet Union under Stalin possessed far more nuclear capability to actually destroy the United States than what North Korea might eventually acquire even in its wildest dreams, or the dreams of those who would portray North Korea as a threat to civilization as we know it.
Although lumped in with Iraq and Iran as a member of the "axis of evil" by the Bush administration, the idea that Pyongyang is in league with Islamic extremists practicing terrorism is a joke. In fact, North Korea was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987, and any terrorist threat emanating from North Korea consists of four Japanese Red Army Faction members who participated in a jet hijacking in 1970 and are harbored by the regime. Faced with this reality, in late 2008 the Bush administration removed North Korea from its official list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Although North Korea has at times taken steps to reverse its nuclear program, it may be wishful thinking to believe that the genie can be put back in the bottle. Indeed, the only nation to ever voluntarily dismantle nuclear weapons it had developed and built was South Africa in 1994. So even as the United States continues to try to persuade North Korea to change course (whether via the Six-Party talks that North Korea now says they will no longer participate in or through direct negotiations with Washington) – which is not the same thing as demonizing and inflating the threat posed by Pyongyang – the Obama administration would do well to craft a Plan B policy (other than ratcheting up the threats, sanctions, or the use of military force) to live with North Korea as a nuclear power. Doing so would be smart, perhaps even genius… like Einstein.