North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout: Canary in the Coalmine
(Commentary) – Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”
Thus, the fundamental goal of three U.S. administrations, to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power that can threaten the United States and its treaty allies, has utterly failed. Two decades of intensive, repeated negotiation have resulted in the polar opposite of what Washington wanted. The nuclear non-proliferation model has been cracked, if not broken, and America’s ultimate security guarantee, “extended deterrence,” will now be called into question even more by nervous allies in Asia, and elsewhere.
Adm. Gortney’s announcement, which senior officials have been inching toward over the past year, now raises two distinct problems for U.S. policymakers, completely separate from the question of whether or not Pyongyang would ever use one of its nuclear weapons.
First, it is time to accept that we are moving into a future of nuclear proliferation, and therefore the increased likelihood of a nuclear event, be it an accident or a conscious act of aggression. In short, America’s holiday from nukes since the end of the Cold War is now over. In addition to smaller nuclear states, great power nuclear competition may well heat up. With Russia and China, two adversarial regimes, modernizing and increasing their nuclear forces, Americans and their allies will have to become used to nuclear saber rattling once again, as shown by recent comments from Vladimir Putin.
Will nuclear blackmail become a standard tool of statecraft in the 21st century? If so, will we simply ignore it, or decide to be more cautious in pursuing our interests? How do we begin thinking again about the unthinkable, yet also learn new lessons that may well have little connection to those from the Cold War, when there were primarily two stable nuclear blocs? We face, instead, a far more fragmented and complex nuclear future, in which aggressive, destabilizing rogue regimes will have control over the world’s most powerful weapons. What strategy will ensure the safety of the American homeland, and does the administration’s plans to slightly modernize, yet draw down our nuclear capability still make sense in this new world?
The second problem is how to deter would-be nuclear regimes, most obviously Iran, when the playbook for gaining nuclear weapons has now been written and published by the North Koreans. Pyongyang is the canary in the coalmine for nuclear proliferators. The failure of negotiation, the unwillingness of the United States to take serious steps to prevent proliferation, the wishful thinking on the part of diplomats and leaders from both parties, has led us to the threshold of a world far more terrifying than anything we’ve faced in a long time. The repeated assurances of U.S. officials that we would never permit nor accept a nuclear North Korea now ring hollow around the world. It can only be a balm to Tehran to look at our record, and to judge that both time and more sophisticated negotiating strategies are on their side.
Pundits are fond of saying that “elections have consequences.” So do policy failures. The consequences of two lost decades that have allowed one of the world’s most evil regimes to gain the ultimate weapon could be unthinkable. It is a black mark against the comfortable belief that “a bad deal is better than no deal.” Such statements only reveal the poverty of thinking among those who do not show the imagination to see how quickly the world can change for the worse, and how the spillover effects of our misguided approaches can themselves cause far greater disruption than the particular policy failure itself.