Did you know that North Korea considers itself to be at war with the U.S. and its UN allies? The end of hostilities in 1953 did not result in either a victory for one side or a peace treaty. There is a cease-fire in Korea; that is all. The protracted negotiations, that never have really ended, merely stopped the fighting. Periodically North Korea reminds us that it intends to win the war and unite the Korean peninsula under its hard-line Stalinist regime. Last May North Korea announced that it no longer considers itself bound by the 1953 cease-fire.
Achieving Victory via Intimidation and Blackmail
The recent sinking of a South Korean warship by a North Korean submarine--although North Korea officially denied culpability--is part of its strategic plan for victory via intimidation and blackmail. North Korea has detonated at least two nuclear devices and has conducted ballistic missile flight tests over Japan. Neither Japan nor South Korea has nuclear weapons, but the U.S. has extended to them its nuclear umbrella. Most observers believe that this is sufficient. Since a nuclear attack on South Korea or Japan would be met with an overpowering nuclear retaliation from the U.S., it is felt that North Korea cannot achieve its goals. This is a variant of the Cold War era’s Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy, but with a significant and dangerous twist. Whereas the Soviet Union and the U.S. targeted one another with nuclear weapons and vowed retaliation upon one another's territory if either should initiate a first strike, the U.S. nuclear umbrella strategy for South Korea and Japan assumes that the U.S. would retaliate even if American territory were not attacked. This is the opening that North Korea seeks to exploit.
By attacking South Korean forces and then denying involvement, North Korea feels that it can drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies. If South Korea retaliates militarily for the submarine attack, North Korea could threaten it with nuclear annihilation unless it surrenders. (If South Korea does not retaliate, North Korea will step up the attacks.) Furthermore, it could claim to be responding strictly in self-defense and would be justified in attacking American forces wherever they are located, perhaps with nuclear weapons.
A New Korean War Would Drag in Japan
This threat brings Japan into the picture. Because America has significant military forces on Japanese territory, Japan sees that it could be the target of a nuclear attack in a war for which it is not directly involved. Last year Prime Minister Hatoyama campaigned to end America's military occupation, but recently he reluctantly admitted that Japan is unable to defend itself and must continue to accept America's strategic umbrella. (See Japanese Prime Minister Accepts U.S. Base) In effect, Japan admitted that it is a vassal state--despite the fact that it is the number two economic power in the world--and might be dragged into a nuclear conflict against its will. This demeaning and dangerous situation will not be tolerated by the Japanese for much longer.
How to Thwart North Korea’s Dangerous Gambit
There is a solution, although it is very controversial. If Japan and especially South Korea had nuclear weapons themselves under their own control with a credible means to deliver them, North Korea's strategy would fail. Whereas, North Korea might conclude that America would not risk nuclear war to defend South Korea, due to both American and Japanese public opinion, there is much less doubt that South Korea would defend itself and do so successfully, if it had nuclear weapons. Therefore, North Korea's strategic power play can be checkmated by selling to both South Korea and Japan nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. These weapons must be under the sovereign control of the Japanese and South Korean governments, not under de facto U.S. control. The MAD strategy that prevented a U.S.-Soviet war would operate to insure peaceful, if not friendly, relations on the Korean peninsula.
The purpose of military and diplomatic strategy is to move from a condition of less security to one of more security. The U.S. is more secure when its allies take personal responsibility for their own sovereign defense. For example, the U.S. is more secure because France and Great Britain control their own nuclear arsenals. Their ability to ensure their sovereign defense removes a layer of uncertainty and complexity in international military affairs. Likewise, it became less likely that India and Pakistan will fight again over Kashmir since both became nuclear powers.
North Korea needs to know that South Korea has the will and the ability to defend itself. The same goes for Japan. With its own nuclear retaliatory forces, both South Korea and Japan will not need U.S. forces as some sort of “trip wire” whereby U.S. entry to a war would be assured by an attack upon American forces as part of an attack upon one of our allies. Our allies will not be attacked in the first place. American boys can come home. America can reduce its worldwide military empire, saving both cost and rebuilding its tarnished reputation as a non-imperial power. Our relationship with our allies will improve, for our defense pacts will be among equals. Furthermore, the need for one member of the alliance to call upon another for assistance will be carefully defined and greatly circumscribed. This strategy is a win/win all around.