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A Lesson in Rogue Regimes for the White House

Why North Korea might follow Pakistan's example.

1:01 PM, Apr 30, 2013 • By CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN
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More than four years have passed since the Mumbai attack, but that does not mean that tensions have eased in South Asia. The “Line of Control” between Pakistan and India in Kashmir was breached about once every three days during 2012, and in an incident earlier this year, two Indians and three Pakistanis died in a brief skirmish. Sporadic attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir have continued apace, punctuated by an October 2012 strike targeting a popular hotel in Srinagar.

This record of nuclear tensions and provocations highlights the challenges that the United States and its allies will face in managing nuclear-armed rogues. No analogy is perfect, of course, and there are countless differences between Pakistan and the regime in Pyongyang. Unfortunately, many of those differences augur even greater challenges for the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia.

Unlike Pakistan, Pyongyang does not have readily accessible networks of proxies through which it can operate. Although North Korea has sometimes utilized deniability—like the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship, which was only proven by a months-long investigation, which Beijing and Moscow continue to dispute—future provocations are likely to involve direct military action. Such acts could trigger greater South Korean responses than Pyongyang intends or Washington wants.

In addition, North Korea has not suffered a humbling, Kargil-like defeat. Pyongyang’s recently installed leader, Kim Jong Un, very likely had a personal hand in the 2010 attacks against South Korea and may be overconfident in his ability to strike without triggering massive retaliation. Simply stated, the red lines for North Korean misbehavior, and what responses various provocations could incur, remain ill-defined at best.

Finally, in the fifteen years since Pakistan first tested nuclear weapons, it has suffered a coup, perennial instability, and multiple insurgencies. North Korean propaganda describes Pyongyang in far more stable terms, but the truth is that we enjoy little insight as to the health of the Kim family regime, which appears to have managed the latest succession through a series of internal assassinations and external attacks. North Korea may be not just unpredictable, but dangerously unstable as well.

At a recent conference organized by the German Marshall Fund, I asked one expert from an Indian think tank about what lessons she would offer the United States based upon a career of Pakistan watching. She observed that regimes like Pakistan’s and North Korea’s only survive if they maintain a posture of “projected irrationality.” They must demonstrate their willingness to escalate any conflict to nuclear war. By this measure, Pyongyang has already succeeded.

Nuclear weapons give rogue states options. With the bomb in hand, they can engage in terrorism or even limited conflicts under a nuclear umbrella. If we do not find ways to deny these options, we risk finding ourselves dealing with rogues like North Korea—or if it is allowed to go nuclear, Iran—on their preferred terms.

Although the Obama administration’s posture of “strategic patience” was a welcome break after years of bribing North Korea into negotiations without advancing denuclearization, it has ceded the initiative to Pyongyang. North Korea still rejects denuclearization, and Kim Jong Un knows that any conflict that does not result in all-out war could force us back to the negotiating table. We give Pyongyang too little credit if we assume that Kim and his generals cannot use their military as cleverly against us as Pakistan has against India.

The United States and its allies must ultimately choose between rolling back the North Korean threat and learning to live with it. Exercising patience will achieve little if it just provides more time for Pyongyang to perfect its nuclear weapons, thereby raising the costs of a future conflict. We have the tools to cripple North Korea—including financial strangulation, maritime interdictions, and military containment. The question is whether we have the will to use them.

No matter our next move, we had best brace ourselves for the prospect that like the many crises that have shaken the Subcontinent, there will be more to come in Northeast Asia.

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