Nuclear Deterrence and North Korea

Containment is a dirty word, the pornography of post-9/11 diplomacy. After 9/11, as Faoud Ajami, professor at Johns Hopkins University, told Jim Lehrer’s Newshour, strategic containment as a concept had collapsed with respect to such regimes as Iraq. No more Saddams; no more opium trafficking tin-horn states. This can be gathered from the National Security document of September 2002, which asserts a sacred US right to use pre-emptive force against those “rogue” states that threaten its citizens and allies. What seems the most obvious response for states against this neo-conservative assault on state sovereignty? The message from the Iraq war, and present North Korean animosity provide some answers: escalate the quest to find a nuclear deterrent, or face invasion.


Deterrence, in the words of American strategist Thomas Schelling, is merely “the skilful non-use of force.” The enemy, when faced with the prospect of catastrophic damage, has second thoughts, and desists for fear of suffering a disproportionately greater loss than one they might inflict. One might have thought that the spectre of Robert McNamara’ strategic theorising in the 1960s had been buried, the lustre of his theory of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) tarnished by the advent of the “New World Order” that was meant to signal the end of the Cold War.

The U.S. approach to North Korea and the subsequent response of the Pyongyang show the renascence of nuclear deterrence, most notably in the wake of the Iraq invasion. The tragedy of the Iraq War, along with the looting and the cynical degradation of the word ‘liberty’ is the value that Washington has taught agents of proliferation technologies: how to protect state sovereignty with every means possible. These lessons, most notably for the DPRK, began early. As Gavan McCormack pointed out in the New Left Review late last year, North Korea has lived under the spectre of an American nuclear attack for decades, from General Macarthur’s recommendation for the dropping of 30 to 50 atomic bombs, to Operation Hudson Harbour (1951) when a B-52 run simulated a possible attack on the North. From 1957 to 1991, the US “kept a stockpile of nuclear weapons close to the Demilitarized Zone, designed to intimidate the then non-nuclear North.” The messages from Pyongyang are of a desperate regime, clinging to power that is imploding in the wake of history. With each threat, Washington gives it legitimacy. With each promise of regime change, the need for Pyongyang to search for the ideal means for protecting itself grows more urgent.

The idea of the bomb as a means of protecting sovereignty was first made in the early 1940s, when the Allies expressed their concern that Nazi Germany, even without its brilliant Jewish scientists, could come up with a bomb. Some scientists working on the Manhattan Project were dismayed at the use of the weapon: it had after all only been conceived by such eminent figures as Einstein as a “deterrent” measure against any German acquisition of the weapon. But the principle was established, and advisors such as Bernard Brodie were noting in 1946 the need to revolutionise America’s security for the forthcoming years. The US, after all, needed its own deterrent.

But the development of this weapon did not strike some commentators as positive. According to George Orwell, writing in the Tribune (October 19, 1945) the atomic bomb did not democratise war ­ it rendered it elite. Orwell suggested that where “the ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance.” At the level of states, in the community of nations, this elite status was subsequently challenged, and weaponry “democratised.” The Soviet Union did so with its first bomb in 1948. In time, the other Security Council nations followed. But before this happened, the world had to witness the nuclearised evangelism of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles who envisaged massive retaliation against the red card-carrying atheists behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1950s. The Soviet bomb, and the expanding nuclear arsenal of the Security Council members, spelt the end of this vision. In time, Defense Secretary McNamara would digest the nuclear implications of the time and formulate MAD.


The illustration between how useful the nuclear weapon has become, and how dangerous it is not to have it, was provided in Washington’s treatment of both Baghdad and Pyongyang over the course of the last six months. With Baghdad, diplomacy was always nugatory, mere dissimulation concealing the overt desire for war. No act of Saddam proved convincing, and no overture of peace by the pro-war forces proved serious. In effect, the parties were behaving without reciprocal intention: war lay in the subtext. In the North Korean case, the rhetoric on the nuclear weapon has been belligerent and effective. Leon V. Sigal’s work Disarming Strangers (1998) suggested how effective the DPRK’s nuclear threat had been on the Clinton Administration: the Agreed Framework (Oct 21 1994), increased economic aid, and greater diplomatic recognition. But Washington, and North Korea, were short changed, the former for believing that the North would collapse before it could install the two energy plants; the latter for not receiving what Clinton had promised. North Korea’s nuclear program also occurred against the backdrop of Washington’s withdrawal from the ABM treaty and its continued reluctance to limit its own nuclear program.

Accusations of non-compliance duly followed, with the Bush Administration charging Pyongyang in October last year for violating the Agreed Framework by enriching uranium has been the recipient of particular severe rhetoric. The Deputy Director of the DPRK’s Foreign Ministry Ri Pyong-gap stated in early February that the “United States says that after Iraq, we are next, but we have our own countermeasures.” Pyong-gap was perceptive enough to reverse the language of the pre-emptive strike on Washington: “Pre-emptive strikes are not the exclusive right of the U.S.” (Guardian, Feb 6, 2003).

The approaches of the Bush Administration are a study as to how effective the nuclear “joker”, to use McCormack’s term, has been in the DPRK’s pack of cards. Iraq’s mistake seems to have been a denial that it had WMD or for that matter, any nuclear option. Pyongyang took the opposite view. The comments of an unnamed U.S. official with a North Korean portfolio in May to the Minneapolis Star Tribune the contrast between Bush’s position on Iraq. What was required was “coming up with the right mixture of a willingness to negotiate with a willingness to confront (May 11, 2003). President Bush has expressed his desire for “multilateral talks”; and Colin Powell has gone so far as to suggest that “a number of diplomatic initiatives under way … to see if we cannot get a multilateral dialogue started.” This has not to say that war has been dismissed a solution. A Pentagon report suggesting a strike on the Yongbyon reactor was leaked in April, suggesting that the hawks might have been gaining the upper hand. But for the most part, Washington is more concerned with seeking a peaceful solution than a military one. Even a belligerent Donald Rumsfeld agreed with South Korean Minister for National Defense Lee Jun in early December 2002 “to work together for a peaceful resolution of the problem” (34th Consultative Meeting Communiqué). What a difference this has proven from the “non-event” dialogue that characterised U.S. approaches to UN weapons inspections with Iraq.


Smaller states are now seeking nuclear weapons, to the chagrin of freedom lovers across the Coalition. The “war on terror” rhetoric implies that states as a rule (other than those who have it) should not acquire nuclear or unconventional weapons. It is one of those fictitious rules that is unspoken but acted upon: the West, spear-headed by the United States, cannot permit smaller, undemocratic regimes to have access to WMD or nuclear weapons. These regimes are of course “terrorist”, lacking understanding of key American principles of constitutional governance. They will, in time, pass one of these weapons to their “affiliates” on the fringe. This is the world of the vigilante as seen through the eyes of the National Security Council and the National Review, the language of the “rogue state”.

The effect of North Korea’s nuclear card is much in evidence in academic an policy circles. Commentators are suggesting that North Korea be treated as a serious state, with a legitimate right to sovereignty. North Korea analyst Sharif Shuja, writing in Contemporary Review (April 2003) has suggested that, “Dealing with the reality of the North as it exists and waiting for North Korea to change gradually could now be the only way to advance.” Some members of the Cato Institute have gone so far as to suggest that economic sanctions and a pre-emptive strike would be both futile and dangerous. Remarkably, given the hubristic imperialism flowering in the Washington think-tanks, Cato’s vice-chair Ted Galen Carpenter has suggested in a Foreign Policy Brief (no. 73) that the U.S. abandon its visions of power in the Far East. It would be far better to let Russia, China, South Korea and Japan shoulder the load of the sick man of Asia. Washington’s insistence on “maintaining a military presence in East Asia” was pure “folly” (Jan 6, 2003). Carpenter then assures the triumph of the nuclear deterrent by suggesting that North Korea’s neighbours develop “their own strategic deterrents”, a pathway that “may be the best of a set of bad options.”

North Korean belligerence seems to have paid-off. The effect of the Bush Administration’s Iraq invasion has resulted in a race for the nuclear deterrent. It is now left to those powers revolving around celestial axes of evil to move towards a nuclear option. We await, with trepidation, the development of the world’s first Persian bomb.

BINOY KAMPMARK is Hampton Scholar at St. John’s College, University of Queensland, and has recently written on US deterrence in the April issue of the Contemporary Review. He can be reached at:


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: