A Philosopher's Blog

North Korea Nuclear Test

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 25, 2009

As a follow up to their 2006 test, North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb. Of course, a bomb is much more useful with a delivery system, so North Korea has been testing both long and short range missiles. Not surprisingly, North Korea’s test has not been well received by most other countries. Even North Korea’s closest ally, China, has expressed its disapproval.

One obvious question is why North Korea is doing this. Laying aside that their leader has often been accused of being mentally unbalanced, there are other reasons for this. One obvious reason is that testing a bomb is an effective way of proving that they have a working nuclear arsenal. Since nuclear weapons are still regarded as providing political clout, it is no wonder that North Korea wants to flex its atomic muscle.  A second obvious reason is that North Korea has learned that it can use its bad behavior as a way to get what it wants. The folks in charge in North Korea no doubt think that other countries will give them money and other things in order to persuade them to stop developing and testing nuclear weapons. In sum, they can be seen as blackmailing the rest of the world or using a tactic favored by bad children: appease us or we will do bad things.

So, what should the United States do? Attacking North Korea is not an option. Although we attacked Iraq because they were supposed to have WMDs, we know that North Korea actually has such weapons. As such, an attack would be rather costly and could escalate into a nuclear exchange. If we invaded, they would probably use the nuclear weapons and we would probably have to respond in kind. It is also easy to imagine North Korea’s leader ordering a missile launch against South Korea if he believed he was going to lose the war. North Korea might even have the means of firing a missile at the United States, although their long range missile test did not seem to work that well.

Even if North Korea decided not to go nuclear in the face of a US invasion, it is unlikely that China would simply stand by for that. After all, they fought us before during the Korean War.

Of course, given how bogged down we are in the Middle East, attacking North Korea might not even be possible.

Since invasion is not a viable option (and presumably simply nuking them is out), then diplomatic option is the one that remains.

Ironically, North Korea is helping us out here. By antagonizing and scaring the other powers, they serve to voluntarily isolate themselves. Without the backing of allies, their influence will be limited to what they themselves can do (or threaten to do). In contrast, we can gain the advantage of having numerous other nations on our side (or, at the very least, against North Korea). Unless their great leader is completely mad, North Korea should be swayed by a strong and general opposition to what they are doing. So, a diplomatic approach seems to be the viable and most effective option.

This raises the obvious question of what sort of diplomatic approach we should take. If we condemn their actions and then bribe them with aid and concessions, then we risk encouraging them to simply stay committed to their current path. After all, if testing nukes and missiles gets them what they want, then they have every reason to keep on that path. As such, it is tempting to take a negative approach and inflict some sort of punishment.

On the plus side, inflicting punishment will clearly not provide the encouragement that a bribe would provide. If they are convinced that their current path will yield no rewards, then they would (if they are rational) be motivated to leave that path. Of course, North Korea’s leadership is not well known for being rational nor for being terriblyt concerned about the well being of the general population. As such, punishments might simply push them to continue on the same path anyway.

This path could, of course, lead many ways. One possibility is that North Korea’s isolation could lead its leaders to even greater extremes and they might become a truly rogue state. For example, they might decide to sell nuclear material to terrorists-perhaps for the income and perhaps out of a desire for retaliation. Another possibility that this isolation and punishment could finally break North Korea as a country, leading to its collapse as a viable nation. How this would play out would be anyone’s guess. Perhaps it would be a quiet fall. Perhaps it would be a very loud fall, complete with nuclear missiles being launched.

In light of this, the challenge is much like that of dealing with a bad child. We cannot reward bad behavior, because we will just encourage it. We cannot just punish, because doing so will probably not improve things-and might make things worse. So, we have to find that right balance: punishments to send the right message, but also incentives to behave better.

The matter is also complicated by the fact that North Korea’s “great leader” is getting rather old and will be dead fairly soon. His succession plans are not clear and it is not clear what will happen after he is gone. Will North Korea get another “great leader” or something better for the people and the world?

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2 Responses

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  1. kernunos said, on May 25, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    Well, what have they gotten so far for their bad behavior. I vote on option C.(keep ignoring them).

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 26, 2009 at 11:30 am

      They have gotten some stuff: plenty of attention, aid, and so on. Ignoring them is risky-they might decide to keep escalating until we have to pay attention.

      We need to convince them that cooperation is the way to go. We also need to find ways to get our corrupting culture in there and break their isolation. If the citizens of North Korea had wider access to the rest of the world, that would help erode the dictatorship. A democratic North Korea would probably be much safer for us and the rest of the world.


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