As speculation swirls around Israel's air-strike against a site deep inside Syria that is reported to have received nuclear weapons-related material from North Korea, the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear program resume in Beijing today. The most important and urgent message the US should be sending to Kim Jong Il at this meeting is that any detonation of a nuclear weapon of North Korean origin in the US--however delivered and by whomever--will be treated as a direct attack by North Korea.
When asked about the Israeli attack last week, President Bush refused to comment. But as is often the case with Bush-speak, his words reveal more than he intended. Specifically, he said, "We have made it clear to the North Koreans that we expect them to honor their commitment to give up weapons and weapons programs, and to the extent that they are proliferating, we expect them to stop that proliferation [emphasis added], if they want the six-party talks to be successful."
Say what? If North Korea has sold nuclear weapons technology or material to Syria, the worst they have to fear is the collapse of the six-party talks? To whom will this administration stop talking if Kim Jong Il sells a nuclear bomb to Osama bin Laden?
The president's statement demonstrates above all that the administration continues to misunderstand and misapply the concept of deterrence in dealing with Kim Jong Il. On eighteen separate occasions in the past two years, President Bush has warned North Korea that specified actions would be "unacceptable" or "intolerable." Last year, as North Korea prepared a long-range missile test, the administration warned that "launching the missile is unacceptable." But North Korea proceeded without consequences. As American intelligence warned last fall that North Korea was preparing to test a nuclear bomb, the Bush administration demanded that it halt this "unacceptable threat to peace and stability in Asia and the world." But in October, Kim Jong Il conducted his nuclear weapons test.
After that nuclear explosion demonstrated that North Korea had not only expanded its arsenal of nuclear weapons material from 2 to 10 bombs during the Bush Administration's watch, but could actually produce a mushroom cloud, some in the Administration began to worry seriously about an even more extreme possibility. Could Kim Jong Il sell a weapon to Iran's Ahmadinejad or even to Osama Bin Laden? Strategically, the difference between an arsenal of ten weapons versus nine would not be material.
In an effort to deter Kim Jong Il from such a move, the president issued what administration officials argued was a forceful, unambiguous warning. The president asserted that any transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea a "grave threat to the United States" and announced that he "would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such actions."
If the target Israel bombed in Syria was in fact nuclear-related assistance from North Korea, Kim Jong Il will have called Bush's bluff again. Moreover, if the worst the US does in response is to stop talking, he will have gotten away with it.
Successful deterrence requires convincing an adversary that the costs of unacceptable action would greatly exceed any benefits it could hope to achieve. The essential elements of effective deterrence are: clarity, capability, and credibility. In dealing with North Korea, the president has fallen short on all three counts. After successive failures to deter North Korea, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley explained that drawing red lines make no sense in dealing with North Korea because "the North Koreans just walk right up to them and step over them."
Having exaggerated the threat that Saddam could transfer WMD to Al Qaida in making the case for attacking Iraq, the administration should not now compensate by underestimating America's extreme vulnerability to nuclear danger emanating from North Korea. To deter North Korea from selling a nuclear bomb, the administration should announce a Doctrine of Nuclear Accountability at the six-party talks putting North Korea on notice that any explosion on the territory of the United States or our allies of a nuclear weapon that originated in North Korea will be met by a full retaliatory response that assures that this could never happen again. Privately, the president should send his most credible high-level emissary, perhaps former Secretary of State Jim Baker, to explain to Kim Jong Il in graphic detail what this would mean and why he should believe it.