On the Record

North Korea Test Fires Series of Missiles

Michael E. O’Hanlon

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Los Angeles, Calif.: What is the likelihood that China and South Korea will support meaningful economic sanctions against North Korea as a result of these tests?

Michael O’Hanlon: There is a very very low likelihood that China and South Korea would apply meaningful sanctions as a result of these tests, which for all their provocativeness and undesirability are not nearly as bad as the North Korean nuclear provocation of 2002/2003/2004. In my view you have hit on the crux of our problem. Our leverage is highly limited for as long as the ROK and PRC won’t clamp down on trade, investment, and aid.


Rockville, Md.: Why do we insist other countries not have nuclear weapons when we do?

If we won’t disarm, why should they?

Shouldn’t another country be able to defend themselves from us?

Michael O’Hanlon: There are two dimensions to your question, both serious. The first is the broad issue of why there are a number of “allowed” nuclear weapons states–but only a small number, with others being prohibited from obtaining such weaponry. I won’t go into that now. The second is why North Korea wants the bomb. Whatever the argument you could make about India or Israel having the same inherent right to nukes that we do, North Korea is a horrible and dangerous Stalinist state. There is no moral equivalency when dealing with such a regime. I don’t think we need to be apologetic. That said, we do need to recognize that other key countries expect us to be “reasonable” in dealing with North Korea and expect a more serious form of diplomacy and a greater willingness to help them out of their shell (should they prove willing to be coaxed out).


Washington, D.C.: Why won’t the Bush administration enter into real talks and be willing to give up a few concessions in order to get North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile weapons? If the U.S. not willing to talk, then does that not encourage North Korea to continue to build its weapons programs to the point where the U.S. will be forced to talk?

Michael O’Hanlon: I think the Bush administration would argue this approach was tried and proven to fail in the 1990s. I would argue it was tried and proven to work only partially. I think we need a “third way,” a proposal not to buy out their weapons, which could also be seen as giving in to blackmail and a form of appeasement, but to aid them in a transition to a Vietnam-style economy and country. If they are willing to reform that way, AND also give up their nukes, we can afford to be generous in our help. If not, the world should then see that it is clearly the DPRK which is the problem, not Bush administration tactics or preemption strategy or purported unilateralism.


Houston, Tex.: Mike, with DPRK’s expert use of reinforced underground military facilities is it not true they they feel fairly secure against any kind of U.S. bombardment whether from air, sea or artillery and the their resulting confidence in their response capability to a direct attack against their nuclear and missile infrastructure is at the heart of their deterrence strategy? Does the fact the American military armored divisions are not available for rapid deployment onto the Korean peninsula play into these continued bold moves across the “red lines” of traditional U.S. foreign policy for containing the DPRK?

Michael O’Hanlon: They have what I call an overdeveloped James Bond (or Dr. No) complex–as you say, they do like to go underground.

But that can’t prevent the US/ROK combined forces from marching on Pyongyang and displacing the regime. Kim Jong Il doesn’t like to live underground I don’t think.

Bottom line: this reality helps ensure the survivability of their artillery and their missile force but only helps with regime survival up to a point


Arlington, Va.: In light of North Korea’s recent actions, do you think the South Koreans who’ve protested the U.S. military’s presence their country will think differently about wanting the U.S. to leave?

Michael O’Hanlon: no, not many. as previously noted, this development, while unfortunate, is not nearly as serious in my mind as the nuclear provocations of the last few years. South Koreans willing to tolerate the latter will tolerate this week’s developments, I’d predict


Bangor, Maine: How do these tests benefit North Korea? Their most dangerous missile failed. They have angered, or at least embarrassed, their allies in China. If China is pressured by the United States and other Security Council members into withholding food and financial support, what has North Korea gained?

Thank you for helping to clarify this confusing situation.

Michael O’Hanlon: I think you are right, in one sense North Korea doesn’t gain much, except chest-pounding rights for the week. While I disagree with overall Bush administration strategy on North Korea, I think they are being smart tactically not to overreact. This could hurt us (by worsening the divide between the US/Japan on the one hand and the ROK/PRC on the other) if we did

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