Gates gets it half-right

Contrary to what I suggested last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took the bait that Pyongyang dangled last week. In a direct response to North Korea’s nuclear test, Gates told the delegates at the “Shangri La Dialogue” (a major Asian security conference held in Singapore) that “we will not stand idly by as North ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
585434_090601_walt12.jpg
585434_090601_walt12.jpg

Contrary to what I suggested last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took the bait that Pyongyang dangled last week. In a direct response to North Korea's nuclear test, Gates told the delegates at the "Shangri La Dialogue" (a major Asian security conference held in Singapore) that “we will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region -- or on us."

Strong words, but they will ring hollow if the United States and its various Asian allies (and China) do not actually do anything, and I’m betting they won't. Gates warned that North Korea could "continue as a destitute, international pariah, or chart a new course," but it's been clear for quite awhile now that pariah status doesn't bother the government in Pyongyang. And because none of North Korea's neighbors want to deal with the consequences, there isn't much support for the kind of pressure that might cause the North Korean regime to collapse. Unfortunately, that’s also the only kind of pressure that might make it change course.
   
Gates was on firmer ground when he warned North Korea that the United States would consider any transfer of nuclear materials to other countries or terrorist groups a "grave threat" to the United States and its allies. Even here, however, a bit more discrimination was in order. We obviously don't want North Korea giving nuclear know-how or nuclear material to other countries, but it's not clear we would do anything to them if we discovered that they were. After all, as Georgetown's Matthew Kroenig has documented, giving nuclear assistance to another country is hardly an unprecedented act. Russia assisted China's nascent nuclear program when they were allies, France gave key support to Israel's nuclear program, and China helped Pakistan's nuclear program as well. Pakistan's A.Q. Khan network subsequently spread nuclear technology in several directions, and North Korea appears to have provided nuclear assistance to Syria. The key point: in none of these cases was it seen as grounds for war.

Contrary to what I suggested last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took the bait that Pyongyang dangled last week. In a direct response to North Korea’s nuclear test, Gates told the delegates at the “Shangri La Dialogue” (a major Asian security conference held in Singapore) that “we will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region — or on us.”

Strong words, but they will ring hollow if the United States and its various Asian allies (and China) do not actually do anything, and I’m betting they won’t. Gates warned that North Korea could “continue as a destitute, international pariah, or chart a new course,” but it’s been clear for quite awhile now that pariah status doesn’t bother the government in Pyongyang. And because none of North Korea’s neighbors want to deal with the consequences, there isn’t much support for the kind of pressure that might cause the North Korean regime to collapse. Unfortunately, that’s also the only kind of pressure that might make it change course.
   
Gates was on firmer ground when he warned North Korea that the United States would consider any transfer of nuclear materials to other countries or terrorist groups a “grave threat” to the United States and its allies. Even here, however, a bit more discrimination was in order. We obviously don’t want North Korea giving nuclear know-how or nuclear material to other countries, but it’s not clear we would do anything to them if we discovered that they were. After all, as Georgetown’s Matthew Kroenig has documented, giving nuclear assistance to another country is hardly an unprecedented act. Russia assisted China’s nascent nuclear program when they were allies, France gave key support to Israel’s nuclear program, and China helped Pakistan’s nuclear program as well. Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network subsequently spread nuclear technology in several directions, and North Korea appears to have provided nuclear assistance to Syria. The key point: in none of these cases was it seen as grounds for war.

But giving nuclear technology to a terrorist group is another matter entirely, and we need to make it clear to Pyongyang that this is an act that would lead us to discard our normal reservations and remove them from power once and for all. Not only do we want to deter North Korea from ever trying something like this, but we also want to establish and reinforce a clear precedent for other nuclear powers. Regime survival seems to be the paramount concern of Kim Jong Il and his associates, and they must be under no illusions about what nuclear transfer to terrorists would mean for their own futures. This scenario should be the topic of some serious contingency planning by the U.S. military, as well as some serious discussions among the other interested parties, beginning with the other members of the Six Party talks (Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea).  None of these states have an interest in nuclear leakage to terrorists, so it should not be that hard to get them to agree that giving nuclear materials to terrorists would be clear and immediate casus belli.

ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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