Saturday, October 07, 2006

Putting the Cart before the Horse

Top news recently is that North Korea may carry out a nuclear test. Nothing so new about that: they frequently make these threats.

What's interesting to me is the way the international community goes about handling it. Basically, it works like this: North Korea makes some kind of nuclear threat, and then everyone falls all over themselves warning of the consequences. North Korea then usually finds some excuse not to at the last minute, and this excuse involves a minor concession from everyone else - like agreeing to meet with North Korea on slightly more favorable terms, or a couple of extra tons of humanitarian supplies, or something. It seems to me that we're being subtly outsmarted.

Here's a case in point:

In a separate statement from Tokyo, Japan's Foreign Ministry said it was prepared to push for punitive measures at the
United Nations if the North goes ahead with the test.

"If North Korea conducts a nuclear weapons test despite the concerns expressed by international society, the Security Council must adopt a resolution outlining severely punitive measures," the ministry said.

Japan plans to step up economic sanctions against North Korea, tighten trade restrictions and freeze additional North Korea-linked bank accounts should a nuclear test be carried out, Japan's Nihon Keizai newspaper reported.

So if North Korea carries out a test, Japan will punish them financially. If they don't carry out a test, it's business as usual. But the real issue - the fact that North Korea may be in a position to carry out a test in the first place - is being avoided, is it not?

No one actually knows (so they tell us, anyway) just how much progress North Korea has been making on its little a-bomb project. But wouldn't it be nice to know? And what better way to know than for them to carry out a test?

Whether or not North Korea carries out a test will make little difference in the standing of their program. Either it has advanced to the stage where they feel confident testing or it hasn't. If it hasn't, in fact, advanced this far, then this is merely a bluff, and the best way to deal with bluffs is to call them. If they are in a position to test, then letting them watch us get our panties in a bunch for free seems counterproductive. It isn't, after all, the test itself that's scary - it's the level of scientific knowledge they possess on nuclear weapons. If they possess enough knowledge to feel confident carrying out a test, then this test could come at any time, with or without warning. (And indeed "without warning" is the traditional method for countries announcing they've joined the nuclear club, which sort of biases judgment in favor of the idea that this is just bluster.) The idea that we can control what happens next at this point is therefore in some sense absurd.

Now, admittedly, I'm not an expert on nuclear weapons, so it may be that even a single successful test provides so much rich information useful to bomb-making that we want to try to avoid letting them carry out even one such test. But I find that implausible. Nuclear explosions are extremely dangerous; I doubt people set them off just for random science projects. More likely, they're used only to confirm facts we're already pretty damn sure of.

So if I were influential in Japan, I would be handling this the other way around. If North Korea announces it's going to carry out a nuclear test, the best response is just "no comment" (or maybe a taunting "Yeah, whatever." I would LOVE to be Prime Minister of some country and issue "yeah, whatever" as an official statment!). Then, if they fail to test, they have egg on their face, and we have a pretty good idea that their nuclear program isn't that far advanced. If they DO manage to test, then we can simply say "thanks for the info pal, you're cut off." And THEN impose rather more draconian sanctions than we would otherwise have gotten away with (and shut the pestering South Koreans up as a door prize). After all, we would have well demonstrated that the situation was critical, that they must allow unconditional inspections from here on out, and that even a slight deviation from inspections guidelines would be cause for alarm - with potential military consequences. (As for Bush specifically, he'd have a lot less trouble getting missile defense off the ground.)

I don't really know what the purpose of playing North Korea's game on this is. I hope there is a good reason - because what it looks like to the lay observer is a defense against the possibility that North Korea has the bomb. But that's a possibility that could be very real and therefore needs to be faced squarely. Playing their game on it seems a bit like bribing them to hold off telling us the truth so that we can hold off dealing with it.

Japan, in fact, has more to lose than anyone else for putting off taking North Korea seriously. If North Korea has the bomb, then Japan needs one too - and yesterday. Given the fact that Japan's new prime minister is something of an extremist nationalist who wants to change the constitution to remove the prohibition on combat forces, this statement from the Japanese government is totally puzzling to me. I would have expected them to wait it out and then use this as an excuse to justify their pro-military measures.

Chris Hill has something more encouraging to say:

[North Korea] can have a future or it can have these weapons. It cannot have both.

Now that's more like it.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home