U.S. Dilemma: Is Korea Dispute Reason for War?

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Is the U.S. dispute with North Korea over nuclear weapons really worth risking a second Korean War?

That is the blunt question facing the Clinton Administration as North Korea stubbornly refuses to allow international inspection of a nuclear plant and the Administration pushes for U.N. economic sanctions that Pyongyang has warned it would consider an act of war.

Although some dismiss the North Korean warnings as bluster, senior Administration policy-makers and outside analysts caution that the country’s aging leader, Kim Il Sung, is erratic enough to make military conflict a serious possibility.


“The President is headed for a Rubicon on this issue,” said Peter A. Wilson, a former State Department strategist who has been keeping tabs on the U.S.-North Korea dispute. And the decision on whether to cross, he said, may not be very far off.

By any measure, the stakes are substantial--far greater than in Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina or any of the world’s other current hot spots.

Intelligence reports suggest that North Korea is poised to launch a major push in its nuclear weapons program, despite the threat of sanctions.

CIA officials say North Korea already may have one or two nuclear weapons in stock and could well have five more bombs by the end of the year and 30 to 40 within two years. Moreover, Pyongyang is rapidly developing intermediate-range missiles that could easily carry such warheads to Japan.

Both U.S. and foreign analysts warn that if North Korea acquires a nuclear arsenal, it could turn the strategic balance in Asia upside down and set off a regional race for nuclear weapons involving South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, which now are nuclear free.

And rogue states such as Iran and Libya, which already buy missiles and other conventional weapons from North Korea, might be able to acquire nuclear arms from Pyongyang as well, seriously threatening the West.


But if the risks of inaction are great, the consequences of action could be grave as well. Most military analysts are confident that, 41 years after the first Korean War ended in a stalemate, the United States and South Korea ultimately would win decisively if the North invaded South Korea--but only at the cost of enormous casualties.

With 1.1 million North Korean troops now massed near the border, current estimates are that allied troops could suffer as many as 18,000 casualties in the first few days of a war. The United States now has 37,000 troops in South Korea, and South Korea has 650,000.

And unless the North Koreans decided to bypass Seoul for tactical reasons, South Korea’s prosperous capital city most likely would end up in ruins. “It’s not a pretty picture,” said Robert W. Gaskin, a former Pentagon strategist who now is a vice president of Business Executives for National Security, a defense-monitoring group.

North Korea’s war rhetoric reached a new stridence last week when it renewed its warnings to the United States and Japan not to miscalculate the possibility of military conflict. The North Koreans bluntly told Japan that it would be “unable to evade a deserving punishment.”

In such a climate, opinion here is sharply divided over how far the United States should go to prod North Korea to abandon--or merely to halt--its nuclear program. The bottom-line question is whether it should risk a new war.

“The simple answer is no--but you can’t say that, because the whole concept of deterrence is the ability to threaten things you don’t mean,” said Janne Nolan, a Brookings Institution nuclear weapons expert. “It’s a question of at what point do you stop?”


“The trick is to orchestrate this in a way that puts so much pressure on the North that they are intimidated and back away,” said Leonard S. Spector, a Carnegie Endowment national security analyst.

But conservatives such as Henry Sokolski, a former Pentagon nuclear weapons expert, argue that while enforcing the international nuclear inspection program is laudable, Clinton is misguided in hinging U.S. policy on North Korea’s refusal to cooperate.

Although international inspections are useful, Sokolski said, “their urgency is highly overrated. . . . They certainly are not worth going to war over or pleading for U.N. sanctions to secure. Nor are they worth making any further concessions to North Korea to obtain.”

Rather, he asserted, “if U.S. officials are really serious about addressing the North Korean threat, they would do well to back off their preoccupation with nuclear inspections and instead get on with the serious business of containing . . . the North Korean regime.”

That would mean drawing North Korea into broader negotiations designed to make the country more prosperous and to coax it into unification with the more democratic South. “Once you change the (North Korean) regime, you can get satisfaction,” he said.

Others argue that the Administration is making too much of the current “crisis” with North Korea. The United States did not react nearly this strongly when Pakistan, India and Israel acquired nuclear weapons, they reason. Why, they ask, is North Korea’s case any different?


Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Assn., a private arms control group, has identified some of the reasons:

* Unlike North Korea, the governments of Pakistan, India and Israel are not members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and therefore are not legally obligated to allow international inspectors to catalogue their facilities.

* Although India and Pakistan frequently have threatened each other, none of the three countries has used its nuclear weapons to threaten general destruction. By contrast, North Korea has a track record of terrorism around the world.

* North Korea’s nuclear weapons, unlike those of India, Pakistan and Israel, might prompt Japan to build a bomb, a move that almost certainly would spur other Asian countries to go nuclear and change the entire security balance in the region.

To many analysts, the Clinton Administration is partly responsible for the current standoff with North Korea. The United States backed itself into a corner by declaring from the start that the crucial issue in the dispute would be North Korea’s compliance with the non-proliferation treaty.

Even more critical, the Administration’s apparent waffling on the issue--it seems to have swung from conciliation to dire warnings and back several times within a month--has failed to provide a clear signal that Washington means business and is willing to go to war.


Policy-makers have publicly rejected suggestions that the United States launch a preemptive strike to knock out North Korea’s nuclear weapons plants. The facilities are buried deep underground, and an attack would almost surely lead to war.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry has repeatedly said that Washington is unlikely to consider military action unless it sees evidence that the North is about to invade South Korea again. “We will not provoke a war,” he has told reporters.

At the same time, one proposed set of sanctions would impose a naval blockade to help enforce a U.N. trade embargo--a move that North Korea would almost certainly consider provocative.

And pressure for firm action is growing here at home. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) argues that the only way to make North Korea listen is to mount a credible military threat.

“Clearly, we’ve got to prepare for war,” Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” program last Sunday. “We’ve got to say to the North Koreans, ‘If that’s the game that you want to play, regrettably we’re prepared to play it.’ ”

An ABC News poll last week showed that 48% of Americans support allied military action to bring North Korea into line--though whether the respondents understood all the implications of such a policy is unclear.


Some analysts remain uncertain about whether the White House has the resolve to bring the United States to the brink of war to halt the North Korean nuclear program.

Wilson, the former State Department strategist, worries that the Administration still has not seriously addressed the possibility that the U.S. policy could lead to war. “At this point, it’s unclear that there has been any systematic effort to think through that question,” he said.

Working against Clinton is his failure to carry through on earlier threats involving Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti. Wilson cautioned that failure to resolve the North Korean dispute could make Clinton vulnerable to charges that he allowed the situation to get out of control.

Worse yet, he said, “if the United States is perceived as unable to solve this crisis, then the biggest proliferation problem we face will not be with states such as Iraq and Iran. It will be with our friends , such as South Korea and Japan.”