ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2003-0426-AYM

North Korea Crossed the Nuclear Rubicon:
Is War Inevitable?

Alexandre Y. Mansourov

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Alexandre Y. Mansourov

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission to ICAS of Alexandre Y. Mansourov. This article was originally appeared as a column in Chosun Ilbo, April 26, 2003.sjk]

North Korea Crossed the Nuclear Rubicon: Is War Inevitable?

Alexandre Y. Mansourov, Ph.D.1
Associate Professor, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, HI

Trilateral DPRK-US-PRC talks in Beijing proved to be a diplomatic fiasco. Contrary to initial expectations of defusing nuclear crisis around the Korean peninsula and bridging the security gap between Pyongyang and Washington, these talks produced a major setback in the international search for peace and security in Northeast Asia. It appears that every time James Kelly meets with his North Korean counterparts they only exchange kicks and punches, reinforce mutual hostility, and cement their respective commitments to further escalation of the nuclear tensions. The Kelly process does NOT work!

In Beijing, North Korea officially declared it has nuclear weapons and may test, export, or use them, depending on the U.S. actions. In other words, Pyongyang declared itself a 9th member of the privileged nuclear club in total disregard of the unanimous will of the international community, persistent admonitions from its Chinese ally, and its legal obligations to the South Korean benefactor.

Now the ball is in the U.S. court. Washington has three options: 1) to call it a bluff because of the lack of physical evidence of the North Korean clandestine nuclear weaponization activities; or 2) to ignore that declaration and continue to work with other regional powers, especially China and ROK, towards the goal of completely isolating and strangulating the North economically and politically; or 3) to enforce its "red line" by taking out the North Korean nuclear facilities at the time of its own choosing.

The first option is politically unacceptable for the hard-line Bush White House. It would also contradict to the long-held beliefs of the U.S. intelligence community about Pyongyang’s possession of one or two nuclear weapons already. The strangulation or "slow death from implosion" option, albeit preferred by the State Department, may undermine the credibility of the newly announced U.S. counter-proliferation strategy, which commits the United States to preemptive strikes against the rogue states aspiring to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This leaves the military enforcement option with subsequent "regime transforming contingencies" as the only course of action acceptable to the sole reigning superpower.

It is hard to imagine that any American government will ever authorize a precision- guided military strike against the North without prior consultations with and formal approval from its ROK ally. Not even President Bush, who has just led the 21st century high-tech-equipped and almost almighty U.S. armed forces to an overwhelming lightning-like military victory in Iraq, will dare to forego close coordination with Seoul and disregard the wishes of the South Korean people and citizens of Seoul whom the U.S. troops stationed in the ROK are supposed to defend against a potential North Korean military threat.

That is why the upcoming state visit by President Roh Moo-hyun to the United States in early May becomes a matter of paramount importance for peace and security in Northeast Asia. No longer a simple introductory summit, the visit is likely to become a pre-war council at which the U.S. President may well argue for the need to forcefully stop the North Korean nuclear threat and ask the ROK President to commit himself and his country to military action against the North. The upcoming summit is likely to test Mr. Roh Moo-hyun’s beliefs, especially, his determination to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue in a peaceful manner. The question that Washington may pose before Seoul during the pre-war council will be "are you with us or with a nuclear-armed North Korea?" The upcoming pre-war council in early May may prove to be the most severe test of the viability and effectiveness of the U.S.-ROK military alliance for the past fifty years and may have dramatic repercussions for the long-term durability of the U.S.-ROK military security ties in the future.

Now the nuclear genie is out of the bottle. North Korea put on notice everyone, including China, Russia, ROK, the United States, and Japan, that it is a nuclear power and demands to be treated with appropriate respect and due attention to its economic and security needs, or else. The ROK will have a chance to probe the seriousness of the North Korean nuclear ambitions and the direction of Pyongyang’s thinking about the future role of the inter-Korean relations in ameliorating the security situation on the Korean peninsula during the upcoming 10th round of ministerial talks in Pyongyang. Any breakdown of the inter-Korean high-level talks at the end of April may force the hand of President Roh Moo-hyun during Washington summit and complicate his efforts to resolve the current nuclear crisis by peaceful means and in an independent manner.

The Beijing trilateral talks failed to resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. They also brought about the demise of the Sino-North Korean alliance. The big question is whether this diplomatic debacle will set in motion the process of forceful dismantlement of Kim Jong Il’s regime and open the way for the beginning of the end of North Korea or will result in the breakdown of the U.S.-ROK strategic alliance. President Roh Moo-hyun will have to make a choice – war against "evil" or peace with the nuclear North against American wishes.

1 The views expressed in this column are personal opinions of the author and do not reflect the official positions of the APCSS or the U.S. government.

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