The Magazine

The North Korean Nightmare

It's later than you think.

Aug 30, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 47 • By JOSEPH P. FERGUSON and NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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E.H. CARR'S powerful little book The Twenty Years' Crisis presciently argued in 1939 that the events leading Europe to war were not sudden and new, but rather two decades in the making; that interwar Europe's crisis was rooted in power politics, framed by the insatiable ambitions of revisionist states, and intensified by the stubborn unwillingness of some European (and American) leaders to recognize these unpleasant but unyielding realities. Though written in another time and of another place, The Twenty Years' Crisis could be offered as briefing material today for policymakers struggling to make sense of the international drama revolving around the nuclear weapons program of North Korea.

North Korea's nuclear crisis, of course, is not exactly breaking news. If, like Professor Carr, we wish to date the duration of the crisis, we would be obliged to look back many years: perhaps to Pyongyang's November 1992 refusal to cooperate with the inspectors from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who were attempting to reconstruct the full history of two suspect sites in North Korea's nuclear program; or to North Korea's March 1993 announcement of its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that gave IAEA inspectors authority to pursue their inquiry; or even to the attendant March 1993 declaration by North Korea's Kim Jong Il of a "semi-state of war" and warning that "a touch-and-go grave situation has been created in which war may break out at any moment."

Indeed, the following depiction of the crisis on the Korean peninsula, written by Paul Bracken in the fall of 1993, might just as well have been published yesterday:

North Korea is in a crisis that threatens its existence. . . . The situation is extraordinarily dangerous because these are the highest stakes possible. The Korean Peninsula, moreover, is heavily militarized and lacking in crisis management capacities. Dealing with nuclear proliferation in this high-stakes setting will be much more difficult than solving proliferation problems in other countries. . . . The absolutist regime in the North has limited maneuvering room and must operate within very shaky military and economic structures. Although there are risks of pressing it too hard, a nuclear-armed North Korea would constitute the long-feared nightmare of the international community: an over-armed state in a desperate position; with unstable decision-makers and poor command and control.

To be sure, the current particulars of the North Korean nuclear crisis differ in some respects from those a decade earlier. But it is nevertheless the same crisis, shaped by the same fundamentals. And like Carr's Twenty Years' Crisis, this Korean crisis may fester for years to come. But just as in interwar Europe, the balance is inherently unstable. Some decisive event or events will finally spark dramatic--perhaps explosive--changes that profoundly reconfigure the region's security equation.

For most of the actors embroiled in the drama--the United States, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia--the preferred outcome to the crisis would be a comprehensive and peaceful resolution through diplomatic negotiations. But in this drama, as in Europe's interwar drama, the most desirable outcome may well be the least likely. Given the character and objectives of the drama's central actor--the regime in Pyongyang--it is difficult to see how the contending interests of the principal parties could be harmonized. This is not to suggest that we shall not see international talks convened or "breakthroughs" claimed. (We have, after all, already seen plenty of that over the past decade; more of the same likely lies ahead.) It is instead to suggest that such talks and "breakthroughs" are exceedingly unlikely to defuse the ongoing crisis itself.

The North Korean nuclear crisis of 2002-2004 has been treated as a terrible surprise by practically all of the governments that have become embroiled in it. Before that eruption, it is well to remember, cautious optimism about a newly constructive attitude in Pyongyang had been spreading in international diplomatic circles for several years. And the optimists seemed to have facts on their side, for in the period between late 1999 and October 2002--that is to say, until the month Washington confronted North Korea with evidence that it was running a secret nuclear program in contravention of many pledges and treaty obligations--relations between Pyongyang and its neighbors (indeed, with the entire international community) were arguably better than at any previous point since the end of the Korean War.