PIIE Blog | North Korea: Witness to Transformation
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to North Korea: Witness to Transformation Search
North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Nuclear Weapons, Northeast Asia, and the Greater Fool Theory

by | March 5th, 2013 | 05:41 am
|

Economists have a disconcerting habit of studying their own models for so long that they lose track of reality; one such tendency is to focus on “efficiency” to the exclusion of all other values in human relations.  Political scientists do the same thing with concepts like “regime preservation.” But understanding that all professions suffer from down-the-rabbit-hole syndrome doesn’t lessen the discomfort of listening to yet another political scientist explain the brilliant maneuvering of three generations of Kims in transforming North Korea into…uh…nuclear-armed penury?

The Kim regime’s fixation on nuclear weaponry and its tragic misreading of history was on display again a couple of weeks ago in a truly classic KCNA commentary, “Nuclear Test, Part of DPRK’s Substantial Countermeasures to Defend Its Sovereignty.” Starting off with the usual demonizing of the United States, then moving on to a justification for its development of nuclear weapons as a defensive measure, the commentary concludes “The tragic consequences in those countries which abandoned halfway their nuclear programs, yielding to the high-handed practices and pressure of the U.S. in recent years, clearly prove that the DPRK was very far-sighted and just when it made the option. They also teach the truth that the U.S. nuclear blackmail should be countered with substantial countermeasures, not with compromise or retreat.”

OK, so let’s run through which countries have given up nuclear weapons or terminated significant development programs. How did they fare?

South Africa is a great place to start.  Pretoria gave up nuclear weapons, experienced a successful non-violent transition from apartheid to an inclusive democracy, and hosted the World Cup.

Next stop former republics of the Soviet Union: Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.  Collectively, the post-nuclear political histories of these three have not been as successful as South Africa, but do the Rawlsian experiment: would anyone actually prefer a random assignment to North Korea over one of these three countries?

How about countries that abandoned programs halfway through?  Well there’s Argentina and Brazil. Personally I prefer the samba parades at Carnival to the Arriang Festival.  Advantage South America.

And then the knottiest case: Libya.  When KCNA writes of “tragic consequences” presumably it has in mind Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, beaten to death in a culvert. True, NATO would have been vastly more hesitant to enter the fray if Libya had been nuclear-armed, and that would have given the Libyan air force a freer hand.  But then what? Nuke Benghazi? Gaddafi faced a vast popular uprising in response to decades of misrule. Lack of NATO air support would have delayed the final resolution, but it is not at all clear that it would have changed the final outcome. The final chapter in Syria has yet to be written. If Kim Jong-un is looking for a role model, better Frederik Willem de Klerk than Bashar Assad.

I won’t even get into the “tragedy” of the collapse of Central European communism. A quick glance at the Tony Namkung North Korea v. Slovakia index settles that one.

So, let’s stop examining arguments that don’t conform with the evidence and look at one that really matters.  An op-ed I wrote following North Korea’s first test in 2006 remains sadly relevant today: “In the long run, North Korea’s action threatens to set off an arms race in Northeast Asia, a region of rich, technologically advanced states. In Japan the North Korean action will strengthen political elements wishing to see it become more of a “normal country” with a more robust military capability and assertive foreign policy. From the standpoint of new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, North Korea’s nuclear test is an unwelcome development, but the timing could hardly be better.” The third test is in fact strengthening voices in both Japan and South Korea which would like to reconsider their respective countries decisions not to go nuclear.

Again, as I wrote in 2006: “Given its history and specific sensitivities as the only country to ever be victimized by their use, Japan will not immediately “go nuclear” though it has the nuclear, technical, and financial resources to do so. Rather, in the short run, Japan will respond by increasing its defense budget and enhancing cooperation with the United States. However, if North Korean belligerency intensifies, it is not inconceivable that Japan would permit the stationing of short-range nuclear missiles under US control on its soil. Such missiles would be intended as a deterrent against North Korea, with the maintenance of US control meant to reassure the rest of Asia that such a development did not represent the resurgence of unchecked Japanese militarism. In the long run, Japan could develop its own independent capability. The only constraint is political.

Another party that will watch these developments closely is Taiwan. In some ways in an analogous position to North Korea—feeling threatened militarily by a much larger power—if North Korea is able to develop a nuclear weapons capability without suffering severe penalties, the Taiwanese will surely consider emulation…

Which raises the issue of South Korea itself. Again, South Korea is capable of producing nuclear weapons and only foreswore their development under US pressure. South Korea also may be eventually tempted to emulate, especially if Japan goes nuclear.

In the end, China may find itself surrounded by nuclear powers.”

So tell me, who are the fools here?