Ethics & Public Policy Center

Deterrence Lost

Published in National Review Online on October 15, 2007



The danger of terrorist nuclear attacks on American soil is not only very real, but disturbingly likely. Based on current trends, a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is more likely than not in the decade ahead. So says Graham Allison, Harvard professor and former campaign adviser to John Kerry. Allison made his prediction this past July. In the wake of Israel’s destruction in September of a Syrian reactor modeled on North Korea’s own nuclear-fuel factory, how are “current trends” looking today?

In His Gut
Allison is particularly worried that North Korea might pass nuclear weapons or material to terrorists. He notes that North Korea has threatened as much, telling American diplomats, “It’s up to you whether we…transfer them.” North Korea’s apparently conditional threat to transfer nuclear material points to Allison’s favored solution, a “grand bargain” in which North Korea (and Iran) would be offered security assurances and economic aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament.

Allison is willing to use sticks as well as carrots. In October of 2006, Allison pointed out that North Korea has brazenly defied successive U.S. demands that it not develop nuclear weapons, not test a missile, and not test a nuclear bomb. Although in each case, President Bush said the additional step would be “intolerable,” after each violation we did nothing. According to Allison, this trail of crossed red lines and empty threats risks turning the United States into a victim of “catastrophic ‘deterrence failure.'”

The answer, says Allison, is a direct and unambiguous warning to Kim Jong Il modeled on President Kennedy’s statements during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As Kennedy warned Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union, President Bush needs to unambiguously promise retaliation for any nuclear explosion of North Korean origin on American soil. According to Allison, America will only be safe if Kim feels “in his gut” that North Korea will be held directly responsible for nuclear terror — even if the blast results from material passed through a chain of rogue states and only eventually into terrorist hands. On the other hand, if Kim feels as though he can escape detection as the ultimate source of a terrorist nuclear weapon, or if Kim believes that he will not be held directly responsible for his place in a long and complex chain of nuclear proliferation, the path is open to likely nuclear terror on American soil within the next decade.

Bush as Clinton?
A year ago, Allison attacked the president’s North Korea policy as “a striking failure.” The irony is that shortly after Allison’s attack, and to the consternation of conservatives, President Bush did in fact adopt the Democrats’ North Korea policy. And now, within a year, that Democratic policy has failed.

Almost immediately after North Korea’s nuclear test on October 9, 2006, President Bush warned that “the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and we would hold North Korea fully accountable.” Having deployed the stick, at the behest of conservative hawks, the president then offered the carrot of economic aid and promises of security in return for disarmament. Skeptics warned that the bargain that eventually emerged from the six-party talks had weak verification provisions and was unlikely to prompt full surrender of North Korea’s existing weapons or fissile material. But at least the Bush administration could point to what seemed like a workable agreement to disable the Yongbyon reactor — thereby cutting off North Korea’s ever-growing supplies of nuclear-weapons fuel.

Numerous observers have pointed out that the Bush administration’s North Korea policy now traces a Democratic line. Recently, Gary Samore, an arms-control official in the Clinton National Security Council, said: “Bush is essentially doing what the Democrats have long advocated. I mean, in essence this current Bush strategy is the Clinton strategy.” A recent analysis in the Washington Post was headlined, “To Reach Pact with N. Korea, Bush Adopted an Approach He Had Criticized.”

Failed Bargain
The problem is that a combination of carrots and sticks has not stopped Kim Jong Il from handing Syria extensive nuclear technology, and perhaps even fissile material. Theoretically, the lure of U.S. economic assistance and security guarantees, combined with the prospect of American anger, should have prevented Kim’s Syrian dalliance. The apparent conditionality of North Korea’s threat (“It’s up to you weather we…transfer them.”) was an implicit promise not to behave badly if we offered Kim a bargain of the sort he has now agreed to.

The seeming irrationality of a North Korean decision to proliferate in the face of America’s threats and compensatory promises was one of the chief sources of skepticism over early reports of Israel’s Syrian raid. After providing one of the first detailed accounts of the attack, London’s Sunday Times offered the following caution: “But North Korea is at a sensitive stage of negotiations to end its nuclear programme in exchange for security guarantees and aid, leading some diplomats to cast doubt on the likelihood that Kim would cross America’s ‘red line’ forbidding the proliferation of nuclear material.” The Washington Post ended an early account of the Israeli raid on a similar note of caution: “Some North Korean experts said they are puzzled why, if the reports are true, Pyongyang would jeopardize the hard-won deal with the United States and the other four countries. ‘It does not make any sense at all in the context of the last nine months,’ said Charles ‘Jack’ Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea and now president of the Korea Economic Institute.” Lurking just on the other side of this doubt is the fear that if North Korea really has offered nuclear assistance to Syria, the fundamental premise of the “grand bargain” strategy lies in tatters.

Downplay It
Even in the wake of confirmation by the New York Times that the Israelis hit a partially-constructed Syrian nuclear reactor modeled on the one North Korea uses to produce its nuclear-weapons fuel, the details of North Korean aid remain vague — and politically explosive. Official American and Israeli secrecy about the raid serves several purposes. Silence makes Syrian retaliation less likely, and allows Arab states to refrain from condemning the raid — thereby conveying disapproval of a potential nuclear axis between Syria and Iran. And insofar as the Bush administration is still committed to the six-party talks and Syrian participation in Middle East peace talks, it needs to downplay or deny this seemingly intolerable behavior by both North Korea and Syria.

Even the New York Times story confirming Israel’s attack on a North Korean-designed reactor gave evidence of attempts to downplay North Korean involvement: “…officials would not say whether they believed the North Koreans sold or gave the plans to the Syrians, or whether the North’s own experts were there at the time of the attack. It is possible, some officials said, that the transfer of technology occurred several years ago.” This looks like an attempt to deny ongoing North Korean involvement, thus preserving the hope (or fiction) that since entering into agreement with the United States, the North Koreans have behaved themselves. Yet on October 10, the New York Times reported that, “…there appears to be little debate that North Koreans frequently visited a site in the Syrian desert that Israeli jets attacked Sept. 6.”

Fissile Material?
Have North Koreans merely provided the Syrians with building plans and construction expertise, or have they also transferred fissile material? While selling nuclear plans, parts, and expertise constitutes an extremely serious violation of American warnings, transfer of actual fissile material would cross an even more dangerous red line. The answer is unclear, yet early and now largely confirmed reports on the Israeli raid may refer to North Korean fissile material. The Sunday Times reported on Sept. 23, for example, that “well-placed sources…confirmed that samples taken from Syria for testing had been identified as North Korean.”

This report certainly raises the possibility that North Korea has acted in a manner that many Western negotiators would consider “irrational.” For example, on September 20, Michael Green, a former senior Asia adviser to President Bush said, “I would be very, very surprised if the North Koreans were dumb enough to transfer fissile material to Syria or were trying to do work outside of North Korea in a place like Syria….The transfer of fissile material in the wake of President Bush’s public statement after the nuclear test would be extremely dangerous for North Korea and not worth the risk.”

Despite this incredulity, some arms-control experts point out that the least risky way for North Korea to cross the nuclear-export red line would be to establish a wide-ranging deal with a state like Iran. Consider the following passages from “Dangerous Dealings,” a important and, sadly, perhaps prescient study by Siegfried S. Hecker and William Liou:

North Korea may view a nuclear deal that combines near-term sale of some of its plutonium combined with long-term transfer of nuclear technologies and expertise to Iran to yield sufficient benefit to warrant the risk. Unlike a sale to terrorists or organized crime, nuclear cooperation with Iran would be more difficult to detect and deter. A nuclear deal could allow Iran quickly to produce a few nuclear weapons and, even without using them, shift the regional security balance in the Middle East in its favor. If North Korean-fueled Iranian weapons were not detonated, it would be difficult to take actions against Pyongyang. If a deal were to deliver plutonium to Iran, however, the likelihood of it winding up in the hands of terrorists might increase dramatically, given Iran’s much closer ties to such groups….Once in Iran, the potential pathways for the plutonium from the government minders to potential terrorist groups are frighteningly many.

The question is whether this deal has already gone down. Along with the “long-term transfer” of nuclear-reactor technology to Syria, has North Korea also included “short-term sale” of some of its plutonium? If so, the route from Syria to the terrorists is as frighteningly open as it is from Iran. In fact, Syria could already be sharing Korean plutonium and technology with Iran. More than Syria, Iran has the money and oil North Korea needs. Hecker and Liou point to Iranian money and oil as the key reason to fear North Korean proliferation. This raises the prospect that the Syrian reactor is only part of an Iranian-financed three-way arrangement. So it’s entirely possible that North Korean fissile material may already have passed to Syria and Iran, and through them perhaps someday to terrorists.

What to Do?
Like Allison, Hecker, and Liou call on the United States to threaten a massive military strike against Kim’s regime if a bomb with a North Korean nuclear signature is detonated anywhere in the world. But now that North Korea has already passed along its nuclear technology — and quite possibly fissile material as well — what action can the West take to restore our lost deterrence? And make no mistake about it, North Korea’s involvement in the construction of a Syrian nuclear reactor is a serious failure of deterrence. The point of deterrence is not to destroy Kim’s regime after a nuclear blast destroys an American city. Our deterrence is aimed at so convincing Kim of the likelihood of this prospect that he never transfers nuclear material in the first place. Clearly, then, our deterrence has already failed.

Should the United States now pull out of the six-party talks and do our best to isolate and topple Kim’s regime? That might be a way to restore deterrence, yet it could very well have the opposite effect. When we exposed Kim’s violation of the Agreed Framework in 2002, he pulled out of the agreement, restarted his reactor, and began manufacturing and testing missiles and nuclear weapons, leading to our current dilemma. If we sink the six-party talks now, not only will Kim keep manufacturing and testing nuclear weapons, he might very well speed up his exports of nuclear material — including “fissile material” — to our enemies.

On the other hand, if we simply return to the six-party talks, we will have given Kim the message that even crossing our supposedly bright red line against the export of nuclear material has no real consequences. The only way to truly hold Kim to account would be to go to war, as the Clinton administration came close to doing in June of 1994. Yet such a war would be profoundly dangerous for all concerned, and could easily destroy the city of Seoul.

So whether or not the Syrian connection sinks the six-party talks, America is in grave danger. Our best tools, short of regime change, for holding Kim in check have failed, and there is no easy or obvious way to restore deterrence against North Korean proliferation. True, the Israelis have taught Kim that proliferation is liable to exposure. Yet if he suffers no further consequences, Kim could end up more emboldened than before. Meanwhile, we have to wonder whether, in addition to technology and expertise, Syria and Iran have already received caches of North Korean fissile material.

The Outlook
In short, while Graham Allison may have so far been proven wrong about the solution, his fears of a “catastrophic deterrence failure” seem justified. Let’s be more cautious than Allison and put the matter as follows: The danger of terrorist nuclear attacks on American soil is not only very real, but disturbingly likely. Based on current trends, in the decade ahead, a nuclear attack on the United States seems at least as likely as not.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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