The Magazine

North Korea Goes South

ADVANCE COPY from the January 20, 2003 issue: The crisis in North Korea and the collapse of the two-war standard.

Jan 20, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 18 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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READING THE AVALANCHE of op-ed articles on U.S. policy toward North Korea, especially from liberals noted for their dovishness on the subject of Iraq, you can't tell whether our leading foreign policy experts are dumb or dishonest. Why, they ask in feigned puzzlement, is President Bush not threatening military action against North Korea?

We generously offer to unlock this perplexing riddle. President Bush plans to invade Iraq sometime in the next two months and has neither the desire nor, unfortunately, the military capability to fight two wars at once. Therefore, he is stalling on the Korean crisis, hoping to find some way to buy time and slow Pyongyang down. Then, in a few months, after the Iraq operation is complete, he can turn his attention to North Korea.

As it happens, we don't agree with the administration's course. The North Korean crisis is real and it is serious, and the United States probably does not have the luxury of time. Given North Korea's potential capabilities to develop nuclear weapons, six months or even three months could dramatically affect our national security and the overall stability of East Asia. There's a big difference between having one or two nuclear weapons, and having a nuclear assembly line up and running. The possibility that Japan, and perhaps even Taiwan, might respond to North Korea's actions by producing their own nuclear weapons, thus spurring an East Asian nuclear arms race to match the South Asian nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, is something that should send chills up the spine of any sensible American strategist. As is, of course, the possibility of a North Korean regime sufficiently well endowed with nukes so as to be able to sell and spread them beyond East Asia.

Nor do we agree with the manner in which the Bush administration has conducted its stalling operation. Bush officials have been flirting with the idea of offering North Korea a promise that the United States would never attack it. That is a terrible idea. The words of the government of the United States mean something. To promise not to attack someone who is holding a gun to your head and demanding such a promise is more than a symbolic act reminiscent of appeasement. It is appeasement. And in the nuclear age it is a particularly bad idea. What will the lesson be to other would-be North Koreas? If you want an American promise against attack, build some nukes. It is one thing for the administration to engage in a diplomatic dance of the seven veils to buy time. It is another thing to start giving away the store.

What's more, it is a mistake for the Bush administration to take the military option off the table in the present crisis. As Dennis Ross notes in the Washington Post, keeping open the possibility of military action could induce China and Russia to use their considerable leverage against Pyongyang. Ross is right to point out that the world-wide focus on Iraq has come solely in response to the threat of American military action. It might well take a similar threat to get the "international community," and especially Beijing and Moscow, to bear down hard on Kim Jong Il.

But while we are unhappy with the Bush administration's present North Korea policy, we sympathize with the administration's plight. As Ross--almost alone among Bush's critics--is honest enough to admit, one can't start brandishing the threat of force without ultimately being prepared to carry it out. Kim Jong Il will know if we're not serious. And China and Russia would need to be persuaded that we could and would go to war in North Korea if all else failed--just as they have been largely convinced in Iraq.

Could the United States credibly make such a threat? Unfortunately, it's a far more dubious proposition than it should be. The reason it's a dubious proposition is that we as a nation have failed miserably over the past decade and a half to prepare ourselves for the present world crisis. We have not prepared ourselves psychologically, and we have most assuredly not prepared ourselves militarily. Cuts in our defense budget over the past decade have left the American military with inadequate forces to fight two wars simultaneously. The army divisions necessary to invade and occupy Iraq are, essentially, all the army divisions we have available for major actions. Should military conflict in North Korea escalate, the American ability to respond as flexibly and as decisively as we would want would be in question.

What is amazing, and depressing, is that the strategic predicament in which the United States currently finds itself--with simultaneous crises in the Persian Gulf and on the Korean peninsula--is precisely the one everyone imagined could arise. From the end of the first Bush administration through the Clinton era, our military posture was supposedly based on a "two-war" standard, derived from the evident possibility that crises in the Persian Gulf and in Korea could erupt simultaneously. The only problem was, successive administrations, Republican and Democratic, and successive Congresses, led by Republicans and Democrats, refused to provide our military the funds necessary to be ready to fight two wars simultaneously. Throughout the 1990s political support for defense spending was scant. What political will existed was undermined, in part, by a coterie of defense experts who counseled starving the Pentagon even further to force it to carry out a "revolution in military affairs"--to cut force levels and eliminate weapons systems. They argued that the present era was a time of "strategic pause," that the United States faced a period of about 20 years when no threat would require large-scale military action. Not a very sound prediction, as it turned out.

Even the present administration has largely failed to address the problem. The proposed defense budget increase this year is a pitiful $14 billion. The administration is using its political capital to propose hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts. Surely we can afford the necessary tens of billions for defense. After all, whatever the merits of the tax package, what's really bad for the economy is collapsing international security.

It's not just military capacity this nation lacks right now, however. It's an adequate sense of the seriousness of the present world crisis. It seems odd to suggest, after September 11, 2001, that the United States has still not awakened to the real challenges of this dangerous era. But we fear that is the truth. Right now not just the administration but Congress and the foreign policy establishment and the nation are all having great difficulty managing two crises at once. But it is entirely possible that we haven't seen the end of troubles. There have been periods in the past when the world was confronted by multiplying crises--the 1930s, for instance, when every year seemed to bring fresh aggression from the "rogue" states of that era, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Today it is just as easy to imagine new crises--involving Iran, India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan--as it was to imagine the present confrontations with Iraq and North Korea. Are we ready? The answer, we're afraid, is no.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol