North Korea and the Axioms of Choice Leading Us to Nuclear Disaster

One of the hazards of intellectual life, which unfortunately can influence policy in deleterious ways, is the construction of logical edifices upon the basis of false axioms or assumptions. The most glaring example of which is neoclassical economic theory, an impressive logical construction based on the most dubious of assumptions but which encourages, by virtue of its consistent rational structure, the most vulgar neoliberal policies. Those assumptions, no matter what the empirical record tells us, remain unchallenged and so, in part, neoliberal policy endures despite the facts.

The axioms of neoclassical theory are not imposed upon us by reason, rather they are axioms of choice.

Regarding North Korea I detect three axioms of choice that are largely unquestioned, that fly in the face of reality, and which lead to very poor policy outcomes.

Those three assumptions are (a) there exists no viable diplomatic option (b) China can induce North Korea to play ball (c) Ballistic Missile Defense provides blanket protection against North Korea’s missiles.

Let us consider each in turn.

Diplomacy and all that

The first holds that North Korea cannot be engaged diplomatically because North Korea is committed to its nuclear programme no matter what happens. This assumption is based on what is presented, especially by the media, to be the established diplomatic record which shows that North Korea is not serious about negotiations as it has continually rejected diplomatic overtures made by the international community. However, the key empirical premise that underlies this assumption is invalid for it is based on a misrepresentation of the historical record.

In 1994, during the Clinton administration, North Korea and the United States signed the Agreed Framework whereby North Korea was to dismantle its 5 MWe plutonium production reactor at Yongybyon and the US was to support the provision of two light water reactors for power generation, whilst in the interim supplying North Korea with heavy fuel oil. The provision of the light water reactors would be accompanied by IAEA safeguards, but also more intrusive inspections that went beyond the model IAEA safeguards agreement, and so North Korea would be gradually induced back into the NPT regime.

The Agreed Framework as we know collapsed, for several reasons, and not just because of North Korea. The standard view, not without relevance regarding the present day push to use Iranian missile testing as grounds to scuttle or attempt to revise the JCPOA with Iran, is that North Korean missile testing, especially of the Taepodong-1 in 1998, demonstrated North Korean perfidy. Hard line elements in the regime, especially within the military, according to reports at the time, opposed the Agreed Framework and although the Taepodong-1 test was not strictly speaking contrary to the Agreed Framework it hardly represented a confidence and security building measure and nor were North Korean missile technology exports. That said after the Taepodong-1 test, right at the tail end of the Clinton administration, the US pursued promising diplomatic initiatives with North Korea on the missile front which the Clinton White House left for the next, hopefully Gore, administration to pick up and run with.

The actions of the United States were also problematical. For instance, Republican hawks in Congress, especially after the 1994 midterm so called “Gingrich revolution” elections, made it very difficult for the Clinton administration to deliver its end of the bargain especially in relation to the delivery of fuel oil. We should note that North Korea at the time was in the grip of a famine, which killed an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 people, but that was of little concern to hawks who sought to use non-proliferation to squeeze the regime until it collapsed.

The North Koreans, naturally, did not like that the fuel oil promised under the Agreed Framework was not being delivered as agreed to. Critics of the Agreed Framework also alleged that North Korea had a clandestine uranium enrichment facility but evidence for this was slim, and the subsequent open development of a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon shows that an elaborate secret facility most likely did not exist.

The point regarding the famine is important for it was often cited by George W Bush as the reason he reversed Clinton’s policy on North Korea after coming into office in 2000. It was said in media reports at the time that Bush had a highly “personal” approach to foreign policy and he “loathed” Kim Jong-il because of the famine, so was not supportive of the Agreed Framework, but this neglects his own party’s use of the famine as leverage to induce regime change during the Clinton era, but more importantly this ignores the fact that his administration cut food aid to North Korea. I invite the reader to consider the depraved nature of an act that uses food as a weapon on non-proliferation grounds whilst at the same time scuttling non-proliferation initiatives.

We have forgotten this, but they haven’t.

The Bush administration after coming into office quickly set upon a policy of regime change through the graduated employment of pressure using non-proliferation as a pretext. The Agreed Framework was essentially scuttled after the Bush administration placed extra demands upon North Korea, demands Washington knew Pyongyang would find unpalatable. After 9/11 Bush put North Korea in the company of the “axis of evil” and so potentially subject to the “Bush” doctrine of preventive war.

If that were not enough the Bush administration failed to support the sunshine policy of then South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung, which could have led to a peace treaty formally ending the Korean war and the gradual integration of North Korea into the political and security architecture in Northeast Asia. The Bush administration supported the more hawkish conservative elements in the South Korean political system.

Fast forward to 2006. Second term Bush, chastised by strategic failure in Iraq, growing North Korean capabilities and a diminution of the influence of the so called neoconservatives in the administration, reached a six party denuclearisation agreement with North Korea, one strongly opposed by the hard line elements within the administration. Under the terms of the six party accord North Korea would enter into a process of denuclearisation in return for the easing of sanctions and the signing of a non-aggression pact with the US among other items. The very next day the United States placed financial sanctions on North Korea, and encouraged other states to also do so, on pretext that Pyongyang was using a bank in Macao to funnel counterfeit money. These actions placed a great deal of pressure on North Korea’s financial system.

North Korea subsequently walked from the denuclearisation accord, and conducted its first nuclear test. An analysis by an accounting firm later demonstrated that the initial charge of counterfeiting, used to justify the attack on North Korea’s financial system, was false.

Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign had pledged that his administration would pursue a different, more diplomatic, approach toward the so called rogue states most especially Iran and North Korea. When in office Obama essentially continued on with the policies of second term Bush.

No serious diplomatic initiative was made regarding Iran for the Obama administration demanded that Iran first halt uranium enrichment, yet uranium enrichment was supposed to be, one of, the subjects of any talks. Placing such demands upon a state prior to entering a diplomatic process is a means of preventing that process from occurring. The JCPOA was reached much later, when the Obama administration dropped this precondition.

With respect to North Korea the Obama administration, as with Iran, first demanded that North Korea halt its strategic programmes and then it would negotiate. But again, that is a way of deliberately foreclosing diplomatic initiatives. The Obama administration instead adopted a policy of “strategic patience,” the expression is due to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which essentially was no different to the Bush policy. The results of strategic patience are all too clear to us.

In June 2016 North Korea provided an opportunity to pursue talks, which was rejected by the Obama administration. Pyongyang provided an outline of what it referred to as “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” suggesting that it was open to a negotiated outcome toward that end, yet immediately after Pyongyang made this statement the Obama administration, rather than pursuing this avenue, placed financial sanctions upon North Korea. Washington thereby indicated that there was to be no change to the policy of strategic patience. In September 2016 North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test.

Throughout this entire period North Korea’s strategic nuclear programme has progressed.

Donald Trump, like Obama, suggested on the campaign trail that he would pursue diplomatic initiatives with North Korea given the failure of strategic patience. Yet thus far the Trump administration, though conducting its own review of North Korea policy and openly declaring the policy of strategic patience dead, has pretty much followed the same approach only with a little bit more gusto, a little bit more rhetoric and a little bit more via twitter. For example, dispatching an aircraft carrier strike group to the region and ratcheting up the rhetoric regarding China. This isn’t too much different to the Obama policy. There have been suggestions that the Trump White House might initiate a diplomatic track with regard to North Korea but the one, promising, proposal toward that end, from China, it has rejected.

China proposed that North Korea freeze its strategic programme in return, partly, for the end of the large scale Foal Eagle military exercises between the United States and South Korea but the US rejected this, and that on familiar grounds namely North Korea must first halt its programmes and then talks can proceed. But that, as before, would require Pyongyang to forego its main diplomatic lever prior to negotiations which makes it a frivolous precondition designed to foreclose the possibility of talks.

North Korea has consistently pursued a policy of tit-for-tat. Hostile acts, or acts perceived by it to be hostile, have been met with hostility and a ratcheting up of its strategic programmes. Diplomatic initiatives have been met with interest and pursued such as they were.

The diplomatic record does not support the assumption that North Korea cannot be engaged through diplomacy, and so this key axiom underpinning hitherto and current US policy is fallacious.


China is taken as holding the trump card, as it were, with regard to North Korea and sufficient pressure can be made to bear on China such that it can induce a change of policy in North Korea without the US having to make any diplomatic concessions. This view has often been promoted, but by none more than Trump. This axiom rests on the first, to no small degree. North Korea does not take diplomacy seriously, false as shown, and so China needs to be compelled to squeeze North Korea so that it does.

One major flaw underlying this premise is that North Korea has a nuclear programme, in part, because it seeks to escape from its dependent relationship with China.

Consider the issue of coal exports, much in the news of late. China recently suspended the importation of coal from North Korea. Beijing argued that it had met its import quota allowed by UN security council resolutions, but in good analysis by Yun Sun at 38North both the volume and value of imports from North Korea for the first two months of 2017 demonstrate that imports from North Korea are well below the quota. One important point made by Sun, almost in passing, is that the value of North Korean coal sold to China is well below the prevailing market price in China. North Korea, justly, feels that its position of dependency means that China can exploit it.

North Korea’s strategic programme, aimed at developing a comprehensive nuclear deterrent with respect to South Korea, Japan, US bases in the Pacific, and the US homeland, would lower Pyongyang’s strategic dependence upon Beijing. It gives Pyongyang leverage in its relationship with China and so would, one suspects, make North Korea less apt to be exploited by China.

That is, North Korea has a nuclear programme, in part, because of China and further Chinese pressure on North Korea only adds value to its strategic programmes. So, this axiom assumes that one of the reasons North Korea has a nuclear programme, China, can be used to induce it to trade away that very programme.

That is sloppy reasoning.

North Korea has pursued a nuclear programme not just because It seeks to lower its dependency upon China but also as a way to improve relations with the US through a type of coercive bandwagoning. Absent the strategic programme North Korea calculates that it has little leverage to encourage the US to improve diplomatic and economic relations. In that sense as well, North Korea’s nuclear programme is designed to lower dependency upon China through the development of a more significant relationship with the United States.

In regard to China itself, Beijing can only go thus far and no further. By completely acceding to US requests China risks collapse of the North Korean regime, the most likely consequence of which, assuming no Chinese military intervention, would be the incorporation of the entire Korean peninsula into the US global alliance system. China can see with respect to Russia and NATO, Ukraine, Georgia and so on what misplaced acquiescence to US demands can lead to. The US will pocket the Korean peninsula and pursue its geopolitical interests relentlessly, as Vladimir Putin termed a similar dynamic in Europe. Perhaps the Chinese political system will produce an inept bumbling fool such as Mikhail Gorbachev, but one wouldn’t want to bet on it.

It is interesting to reflect how China is discussed in this context. Since 1998 India’s nuclear and missile programmes have progressed steadily, so much so that recently India successfully tested the Agni-5 IRBM (limited range ICBM according to some reports) which Delhi openly touts as placing China’s major cities under threat of nuclear attack. Our response to this has been to support India’s accession to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Imagine if after North Korea’s parade, or heaven forbid an ICBM test, China were to propose that North Korea join the NSG and the MTCR. I doubt there would be sufficient internet bandwidth to accommodate all the collective howls of outrage from Trump’s absurdist Twitter account onward.

The axiom that all roads to denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula lead through China is also fallacious, and is another means to forestall the opening of bilateral diplomatic initiatives.

Ballistic Missile Defense

The reaction to the military parade marking the birthday of Kim il-sung was noteworthy from a BMD perspective. If BMD provides an umbrella of protection from North Korean missiles why the widespread expressions of concern? This suggests to us that it is understood that BMD does not provide the level of protection advertised by its advocates.

The question of a North Korean ICBM has attracted much attention of late, especially after the parade where North Korea apparently trotted out three different types of ICBM. We should note that this is irrational for a small resource constrained state such as North Korea, suggesting that we parse the parade more closely. The Ground Based Midcourse BMD system, with the GBI interceptor and associated sensor systems at its core, is touted as providing a measure of protection against North Korean ICBMs. Yet detailed studies have shown that the GMD system has never been tested under combat conditions, that the testing programme has been highly idealised, and cannot deal with countermeasures such as decoys and other penetration aids.

The Pukguksong-1 SLBM provides North Korea, correctly according to Ted Postol and Markus Schiller, with the ability to launch an all azimuth attack from the Yellow Sea against South Korea and Japan and so would be able to defeat THAAD BMD deployed in South Korea, or potentially Japan, as THAAD is designed to intercept warheads coming from well-defined directions. The Aegis SM3 based BMD system would also be challenged by the Pukguksong-1 SLBM because of its very short flight times.

Ballistic missile defence provides no real protection from North Korea’s strategic missiles, and it would be dangerous to assume that it does. Ballistic missile defence provides the public with a false sense of security and so thereby lowers the political impetus for diplomatic approaches. So long as we think BMD works we are less liable to place pressure on the political elite to enter into a diplomatic process directed toward the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

This is a dangerous assumption, widespread acceptance of which encourages risky policy approaches by the elite whose prime concern lies with matters of power and reasons of state.