Many crises the United States now faces are the result of unwise choices we made years ago. Our escalating nuclear confrontation with North Korea is a terrifying example. The roots of this crisis lie in Washington.
When the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979, the United States resolved to create a force that would fight them. To support this force, we needed bases in neighboring Pakistan. The Pakistani military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, agreed to provide them but at a steep price. One of his conditions was that the United States stop blocking Pakistan’s drive for nuclear weapons.
President Jimmy Carter understood the trade-off. His national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, posed it starkly in a memo. Pakistani cooperation on the Afghan project, he wrote, would require “alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy.”
Today, nonproliferation — keeping other countries from developing nuclear weapons — is an urgent priority of the United States. In 1979, though, the impulse to make a deal effectively freeing Pakistan from nuclear restraint was powerful. Sponsoring jihadist militias in Afghanistan held the promise of bloodying the Red Army, weakening the Soviet Union, and rallying Americans around the war flag. The danger of nuclear-armed rogue states seemed vague, diffuse, and far away.
Until 1979, the United States worked with focused determination to prevent Pakistan from obtaining banned nuclear equipment and material. In the following years, under terms of our agreement with Pakistan, we abandoned that effort. This allowed Pakistan’s nuclear program to blossom. Pakistan successfully tested its first nuclear device in 1998. Along the way, it began sharing secrets with another quasi-pariah, North Korea.
During the 1990s, Pakistan bought missiles from North Korea and provided “civilian nuclear technology” in return. In 2002, intelligence agencies discovered that Pakistan had sent North Korea gas centrifuges that would allow it to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. The Pakistani nuclear smuggler A. Q. Khan, who operated under government supervision, traveled repeatedly to North Korea. “We had a program with them,” he later asserted.
Nuclear expertise and equipment from Pakistan gave North Korea the ability to provoke today’s crisis. Pakistan was able to develop that expertise and equipment largely because the United States agreed to turn a blind eye to its global proliferation campaign. Today’s North Korea crisis flows from a decision we made more than 35 years ago. It is a classic example of what national leaders do too often: jump to respond to an immediate problem and leave future generations to clean up the messy results.
In this case, they are messy indeed. North Korea poses a unique policy conundrum. It vividly threatens other countries, including the United States, while seeking to develop a long-range ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear warhead. North Korean missile tests often fail spectacularly, suggesting that US cyber warriors may be at work. Nonetheless the outside world’s policy of “strategic patience” cannot be a permanent answer to this threat.
No military solution is realistically possible. A preemptive attack on North Korea would likely set off a devastating conflict, possibly including the use of nuclear weapons. Yet North Korea does not seem open to conventional bargaining. This calls for creative and perhaps cold-blooded diplomacy.
American attacks on Iraq and Libya made clear that governments unfriendly to the United States must maintain a nuclear deterrent or risk being bombed out of power. The North Koreans realize this and, as a result, will never accept any deal that requires them to give up their nuclear weapons program. Under intensified Chinese pressure, they might agree to limit or freeze the program. China might be persuaded to apply that intense pressure — but only if guaranteed that it would not end up with a hostile regime on or near its border.
Countries from Bahrain to Honduras to Ukraine have learned the harsh lesson that small nations living in the shadow of great powers cannot be fully independent. That principle may ultimately be applied to the Korean peninsula. China would only agree to apply sharp pressure on North Korea, or permit reunification, if it is certain that the new Korea will not be an enemy. That would require an end to the US military presence that has shaped life in South Korea for 75 years.
The strategic logic is unforgiving. Threats from North Korea can be brought under control only with China’s decisive help. In exchange for that help, China will insist that any future Korean government respect its security interests — meaning no military alliance with the United States. A neutralized Korean peninsula is less than an ideal solution. No better one is available. The crisis is too far advanced.
In 1979, the United States decided to crash into Afghanistan rather than allowing the Soviets to sink into the quagmire on their own. By doing so, we set in motion a chain of events that helped make North Korea a nuclear power. We succumbed to the temptation of seeking a quick victory at the cost of long-term security. Now the long term has arrived.
It always does.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.