Nuclear Madness: Korea and Iran and “Tipping Point”

Headlines are everywhere, pundits shouting “danger” and editorial writers highlighting dangers, yet few have provided any clear action or policies that look productive in changing the trajectory of the madness of North Korea. Their only hope seems to be that this is just another round of “bluster” on the part of the inexperienced “New Leader’ Kim Jong-Un.

Members of Congress mostly Republicans like Peter King have said that they did not regard the North Korean statement as an “empty threat.”  Defense Secretary Hagel also said they were taking seriously the threatening statements of North Korea. The U.S. military has “on station” in the Korean region both two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers and stealth F-22 fighter jets, among the most advanced in American inventory.

North Korea in response said that US action had “entered the reckless phase of actual war.” With each day the harsh war rhetoric seems to get higher and higher rather than diminish.

Recent developments in the region include that the U.S. Navy has deployed the USS John McCain, a guided-missile destroyer normally based in Japan that is capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, closer to the Korean Peninsula. The North Koreans on their part have announced they will reconstruct an old and dismantled nuclear reactor, which could be used to produce more weapons grade fissile material….the news was that the plant could produce enough material for one bomb a year.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, said the U.S. would “unequivocally” defend itself and allies from North Korean attacks.  In addition, they spurned the regime’s claims that Washington was upping tensions.

The question of the day is what allied strategy is likely to result in a calming of the tensions, and in particular seek ways to “contain” and mitigate the North Korean nuclear capability.  One strategy or option is to work the diplomatic tract via the multilateral existing path, which includes China, Russia, Japan and the U.S.  The hope would be after the “bluster” from the North there might be some modus vivendi or formula that would return to a more rational calculation on the part of North Korea. This could be a long-term effort.

Yet, the country with the most leverage over North Korea is China. China denies that it has much leverage, yet it also has the greatest stake should kinetic warfare break out between the two Koreas. For China, it would be a major disaster, which it must want to prevent as they see that a “real war” would destroy the “buffer” between it and American and South Korean forces and fighting, once started, no nation might have any power to stop it.

Also, it raises questions about the rationality of the North Korean leadership since the idea of “restraint” seems not now to be in their vocabulary.   China also is the main source of food and other supplies to the North and it has an intelligence presence in the North and thus is likely to have a better understanding of the situation in Pyongyang. Thus the path to a solution may run through Beijing.

This is a time for visits to Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, and perhaps even Russia by both Secretaries Hagel and Kerry. Perhaps also a “third tract” high level peace mission with official blessing might also be a useful instrument to employ, but it would have to have the backing of China and implicit North Korean agreement.

All of this is taking place when we are already focused on another “nuclear crisis” namely of the Iranian nuclear efforts and there is evidence that both North Korea and Iran have been helping each other to develop a strategic nuclear capability, which if continued would be a turning point in strategic security around the world.  Thus a strong effort to address these questions needs to be on the table when there is a substantive negotiation between Iran and the Group of 5 plus 1. Here the spread of critical nuclear technology is a “must” solution item for those seeking a more secure and stable strategic balance. A rethinking of the “sanctions” issue against North Korea and Iran may be needed if diplomatic outreach fails.

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