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North Korea’s nuclear progress isn’t the only bad news

The questionable quality of Washington's strategic analysis and decision-making portends troubling times ahead

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North Korea’s rapid advances are a game-changer, but the quality of strategic analysis and decision-making in Washington is highly suspect. This portends troubling times ahead.

Pyongyang has long had the ability to inflict massive damage on South Korea through formidable conventional artillery rockets. In addition, it has single-mindedly pursued six nuclear goals:

It may have increased its nuclear arsenal to 60 bombs, not 20 as previously believed.

It has acquired intercontinental ballistic missile delivery capability that puts U.S. mainland cities within range.

It has invested in solid-fuel missiles that can be launched on warning, reducing the time frame for a surprise decapitating attack by the United States.

Its nuclear assets are dispersed and hidden in deep mountain recesses, making it impossible to take them all out in a pre-emptive first strike.

It has mastered the technology to miniaturize nuclear warheads to fit them in the nose cone of the ICBMS in order to increase their range.

The only remaining technological gap to a fully operational intercontinental nuclear capability is to make the bombs survive the rigors of extreme temperatures, gravity and vibrations on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the political elite and press proved how little they understand their own politics in the disastrous analysis of last year’s presidential election. It seems a safe bet that their ability to understand foreign politics is even more limited. Most are not bothered to read overseas accounts and some take the lazy option of reading U.S.-based “ethnic” analysts who have absorbed local prejudices and frames of analyses. The neocon warriors have forgotten none of their arrogance and bad habits, and learned nothing from their string of earlier disastrous errors.

At the biennial Carnegie nuclear policy conference in Washington on March 21, one question asked everyone to rate the probability of a treaty banning nuclear weapons being adopted within two years. The four of us on the panel ranged between 60-90 percent probability. The 800-strong audience, a cross-section of the most informed Americans engaged with nuclear policy issues, mostly gave it a 10-20 percent probability. The U.N. treaty was adopted on July 7.

U.S. nonproliferation strategies are fixated on tools of technology denial, economic coercion and threats of bombing the enemy du jour into total submission. Americans are generally oblivious to how their own history of trying to beat up all challengers has greatly aggravated the threat perception of others to the point of paranoia.

NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to defeat Slobodan Milosevic and put him on trial for war crimes at The Hague. At the following Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) preparatory committee meeting in New York, the Chinese and others publicly questioned if NATO would have bombed Belgrade had Yugoslavia been nuclear armed. In India, the same point was made by former foreign secretary (vice minister) Muchkund Dubey and in an editorial in The Times of India.

The U.S. addiction to unilateral use of military force as justification for a deterrent nuclear force has been voiced by Iran and North Korea. According to The New York Times, in 2011 Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said how Muommar Gadhafi “wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, ‘Take them!’…Look where we are, and in what position they are now.” Senior North Korean officials told Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, that “if Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muommar Gadhafi in Libya had had nuclear weapons, their countries would not have been at the mercy of the Americans and their regime-change tactics.”

Washington is also cementing a reputation for bad faith in honoring deals. Richard Butler, former U.N. chief weapons inspector in Iraq, believes U.S. President Donald Trump has instructed intelligence agencies to find Iran in non-compliance with its multilaterally negotiated deal of July 2015 to curb its nuclear weapons program in return for sanctions relief. This is a demand for fake facts.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly confirmed Iran’s compliance with the deal. Yet in a speech on Sept. 5 to the American Enterprise Institute, a leading neoconservative think tank, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, laid into Iran. As noted by Paul Pillar and Ryan Costello, her case was based on falsehoods, half-truths and innuendos. The insatiable market for fake facts in Washington is disturbingly reminiscent of the perfidious road to war in Iraq in 2003.

A day earlier, Haley said in the U.N. Security Council that North Korea is “begging for war.” North Korea dramatic nuclear delivery strides should push war off the table as an option of choice. Instead the focus should shift to deterring Pyongyang from starting a war or committing acts of aggression, containing it, and constructing defensive shields even if not foolproof.

The nonproliferation horse has bolted and cannot be recaptured. But Pyongyang should be left in no doubt that any attack on South Korea, Japan or U.S. forces anywhere in the region — let alone an attack on U.S. territory — will provoke an all-out war guaranteed to destroy North Korea and liquidate the regime.

This will still leave two challenges. First, modeling itself on Pakistan, North Korea could practice low-level serial provocations that inflict pain and create frustration but are not significant enough to risk all-out war with the risk of nuclearization. Second, the anger and exasperation at North Korea being granted de facto nuclear-armed status, plus fear of abandonment by the U.S. (“Will Washington really sacrifice Los Angeles for Tokyo, San Francisco for Seoul?”), could drive Japan and South Korea (and perhaps Taiwan) to sprint down the nuclear weapons path.

Before the revisionists blame it all on the new U.N. treaty banning nuclear weapons, it is worth emphasizing that this crisis point has been reached from entirely within the NPT. The logic of proliferation cascade is built into the logic of nuclear deterrence that evades calls for abolition. For decades some of us have insisted that without disarmament, proliferation is inevitable. Instead of conceding how right we have been proven, already those on the other side claim that North Korea’s nuclearization proves how naive we have been in calling for controlled disarmament. Go figure.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.