Daniel W. Drezner

What Do Syria and North Korea Have in Common?

One of the more fascinating aspects of the Syria debate has been the divide between policymakers and academics over the question of credibility and reputation in international politics. In essence: Does Washington’s reversals of course in Syria signal to allies and adversaries alike that the U.S. will not honor its other defense commitments? I bring this ...

One of the more fascinating aspects of the Syria debate has been the divide between policymakers and academics over the question of credibility and reputation in international politics. In essence: Does Washington’s reversals of course in Syria signal to allies and adversaries alike that the U.S. will not honor its other defense commitments?

I bring this up because — tucked into the Wall Street Journal‘s tick-tock on the Obama administration’s post-August 21 gyrations on Syria policy — there was this little nugget:

The U.K. parliamentary vote happened as National Security Adviser Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were beginning a conference call with congressional leaders. During the call, Mr. Hagel, who was traveling in Asia, raised the question of U.S. credibility. He said South Korea was concerned U.S. inaction would make North Korea think it could get away with using chemical and biological weapons. [Emphasis added.]

This is not the only time Hagel has brought up this connection:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cited North Korea as a country that he said could be emboldened if global norms against use of chemical weapons are weakened by US inaction in response to the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus.

The focus of US diplomacy with North Korea has been its expanding nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. But Hagel told US lawmakers that Washington and Seoul were also concerned about chemical weapons.

"I just returned from Asia, where I had a very serious and long conversation with South Korea’s defense minister about the threat that North Korea’s stockpile of chemical weapons presents to them," Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He described the North Korean stockpile as "massive."

While Secretary of State John Kerry has made similar references, Hagel seems to be asserting that it’s not just a valid comparison to make, but that South Korean officials have actually been making it to American officials. This would be direct evidence to support the claim that credibility matters more in world politics than the current academic research indicates.

The thing is, it’s not at all clear whether Hagel’s assertions have any grounding in fact. First of all, Korea experts have seen almost no chatter inside the ROK making this comparison as the Syria debate has heated up.

Second, these really are apples-and-oranges cases. Syria’s government used chemical weapons on its own people during a civil war; the DPRK would be using such weapons against another sovereign state that happens to be an important U.S. treaty ally. Any decision by the DPRK to use its chemical weapons would trigger an international war — a fact that Pyongyang knows already.

Third, as Scott Snyder noted a few days ago, the North Koreans can spin any U.S. action or inaction in Syria as an argument in favor of bolstering their WMD:

North Korea has successfully avoided accountability for its persistent efforts to expand its WMD capacity. The United States intervened in Iraq at the same time that North Korea was on the verge of conducting its first nuclear test. North Korea has publicly stated that the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya affirms that North Korea has taken the right path by pursuing its nuclear development. A U.S. focus only on Syria, despite evidence of North Korea’s support for the latter’s WMD programs, will strengthen Pyongyang’s belief that its nuclear weapons program is successfully deterring U.S. and international efforts from holding it accountable for its actions.

Thus, a precision strike to teach Syria a lesson on WMD use will not deter North Korea from building a capacity to directly threaten the United States or from using WMD if it deems necessary. It may instead strengthen the position of North Korean hardliners that it must build this capacity to strengthen deterrence.…

North Korea is indeed watching, but its leaders are unlikely to take a lesson from U.S. intervention in Syria and instead will use whatever happens in Syria to its advantage. It is self-delusion to tell ourselves that action or inaction in Syria will prevent North Korea’s efforts to build a nuclear blackmail capability.

Finally, there’s the fact that South Korea has publicly welcomed the chemical weapons deal on Syria.

To be fair, Snyder also suggested that "A U.S. strike on Syria will however provide a measure of assurance to U.S. allies who live under the threat of North Korean chemical and nuclear weapons use." So there’s that, and whatever the ROK defense minister said to Hagel.

These things can’t be dismissed out of hand. I do think they can be dismissed after further reflection, however.

What do you think?

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