North Korea’s latest ballistic missile launches remind us that this remains a crisis the Trump administration is forced to confront. America’s increasingly concerned Asian allies ― Japan and South Korea, among others ― face the threat of a volatile regime which has proven to have long-range ballistic missile capability. The next phase, in which the dictator Kim Jong-un introduces his country’s ability to mount a nuclear warhead, will forever end the decades-long record of successive U.S. administrations’ promises and guarantees that the US will not allow this event to transpire.
However, this outcome is inevitable. The consensus of military experts is that the U.S. has waited too long and there are no acceptable options, including a military strike, which can now prevent North Korea from joining the roster of countries with nuclear arms ― having a device and the operational capability to deliver it.
The gravity of this assessment cannot be overstated. Such a development will not only threaten regional stability, but also the U.S. mainland itself. The reality of being threatened by a regime noted for its brutal and erratic behavior and willingness to sacrifice its own citizens to assure its survival would leave U.S. strategic allies unsure of their future and survival.
Israel and other U.S. allies in the Gulf concerned about Iran’s designs must now ask questions about the value of American assurances to them. What is the worth of these declarations? If the U.S. government is not able to back up its own statements that it has been proclaiming for so long, how can any ally ever be confident about other, similar circumstances?
How did we get here?
On October 12, 1994, the United States and North Korea signed the “Agreed Framework” in which North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium production program in exchange for fuel oil, economic cooperation, and the construction of two modern light-water nuclear power plants. Eventually, North Korea’s existing nuclear facilities were to be dismantled, and the spent reactor fuel taken out of the country. Despite this agreement, within a short time North Korea was cited by the International Atomic Energy Agency for multiple violations. International condemnations and UN sanctions followed with regularity. But, despite threats by diplomats and political leaders, no action was successful.
The West, led by the U.S., was determined to give soft diplomacy the chance to bring the North Korean leadership into the community of peaceful nations. The most striking and blatant violation of North Korea’s commitments was a test of a real nuclear bomb on October 9, 2006. In February 2007, yet another U.S.–North Korea agreement was signed. Its guidelines were again economic benefits in exchange for halting the nuclear project.
Ten years later North Korea has 15-20 nuclear warheads. On July 4 North Korea tested a new ballistic missile with a 4,000 mile range. It threatens its neighbors in East Asia and in the not-too-distant future will be able to reach the West coast of America. A recent U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report warns that by 2018 North Korea will succeed in mounting a nuclear warhead on its ballistic missile. North Korea’s defiance and arrogance has paid off for its regime.
This failure of the U.S. approach and of allowing wishful thinking to ignore the unpleasant truth about the objectives of the North Korean regime is now painfully facing US allies in the Far East
Here in the Middle East, it is not only Israel that must draw the rueful and hard lessons from the catastrophe of the U.S. policy toward North Korea. Iran is on course to replicate this failure in our region, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Jordan and other Arab countries now share Israel’s grave concerns. The old model that detached Israel from the region is obsolete.
The Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), limited Iran’s commitment to minimizing uranium enrichment and transforming its Heavy-Water reactor at Arak. It said nothing about Iran’s support of terrorism or subversive activity, let alone human rights.
Iran backs and arms three militias in Syria: Hezbollah and two other heavily armed Shiite groups. Iran is attempting to secure a strategic corridor between Tehran and the Mediterranean Sea, which would enable it to support its militias in Lebanon and Syria and supply them with sophisticated weapons. Iran is positioned on the Red Sea with its presence in Yemen. It effectively controls the governments of Iraq and Lebanon. It acts to broaden its influence in Afghanistan and Kurdistan.
In the area of ballistic missile development, the numbers speak for themselves. Iran tested two ballistic missiles between 2012 and 2014, and tested eight such missiles in 2015-2017.
It will not take ten years for our region to face a nuclear Iran with the ability to launch a ballistic missile nuclear weapon at ranges even beyond the current proven 2,000 kilometers.
U.S. allies in the Middle East must be determined to assure that the failure to deal effectively with North Korea will not be repeated with Iran before it is too late.
Dialogue and the tools of diplomacy are critical in the search for mutual understanding and respect between people and nations. Their role is proven and indisputable. But more than talking is needed to assure survival in the Middle East.
Ephraim Sneh is a former Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense and a retired Israel Defense Forces General.