New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Issue-Spotting the February 2013 DPRK Nuclear Test


Below is the text of remarks Dr. Ford delivered on February 13, 2013, to a class at the George Washington University Law School taught by David Jonas, who serves as Professorial Lecturer in Law there and also as General Counsel to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

Good evening, and thanks to Professor Jonas for inviting me to speak to you.  When I was thinking yesterday about what to discuss, the morning’s headlines about North Korea’s most recent nuclear test were in front of me.  Accordingly, I thought it might be interesting to use the test as a jumping-off point for our discussions tonight – much as one might use a particularly complicated fact pattern as a starting point for an issue-spotting essay for a law school exam.  For I think the DPRK’s test can indeed provide some window upon a number of important issues.  So let’s play the issue-spotting game.  Off the cuff this morning, I came up with ten points – though we might be able to come up with a few more as we discuss these questions later in the class.

1.          Direct threats to the United States

Some in the U.S. policy community have been warning for years about the gradual emergence of direct threats to the U.S. homeland from the proliferation of ballistic missile technology and also – increasingly – from the nuclear technology that enables them to be tipped with nuclear warheads.  The timing and thus urgency of responses to such threats have been part of our national security discourse, and the subject of much debate, for a long time.

That threat is no longer conjectural, however.  At the moment, we are two months into an era in which North Korea has successfully tested what is in effect a crude intercontinental ballistic missile, and now also two days into an era in which the regime in Pyongyang has tested what it claims, at least, is a more miniaturized weapon perhaps capable of topping such a missile.  The days may now be over when those eager not to struggle with the implications of proliferation can dismiss the North Koreans as having tested a nuclear “device” – rather than a warhead – and as still not constituting more than a regional threat.

It is not clear what the North Koreans are presently able to accomplish in terms of re-entry vehicle engineering and missile accuracy, but we are clearly losing the luxury of such wishful evasions, and now need to struggle with the prospect of direct nuclear threats to the U.S. homeland from proliferator states.

[Note: In April 2013, two months after these remarks were delivered, it was revealed that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency had indeed concluded with “moderate confidence” that North Korea had developed the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile, though only with low reliability.  Obama Administration officials thereafter tried to downplay DIA’s conclusion, declaring that “[i]t would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage.”  Since no one had alleged that the DPRK had “fully tested, developed or demonstrated” such a capability in the first place, however, this was not particularly reassuring.  It did appear that U.S. intelligence felt Pyongyang to have been making significant progress.]

If the “first nuclear age” can be described as a superpower stand-off in which strategic relationships and deterrence could be understood as existing in a dyadic confrontation between great power blocks, we are now finally completing an ambiguous transition period into the second nuclear age – one of much more complicated multiplayer games, proliferator threats, and new sorts of strategic uncertainty.

Our conceptual framework for thinking about deterrence and national strategy in a nuclear environment, however, remains all too rooted in dyadic conceptions.  There is some reason to believe that a multiplayer system can be even more unstable and unpredictable than a bipolar competition, but we have not yet developed a good set of cognitive tools for grappling with nuclear strategy in an “N-Player” game where N is a number greater than two.  Worryingly, the issue of nuclear strategy is, I think, woefully neglected in the modern academy and policy communities.

After a period of general post-Cold War indifference to such questions, we moved into a few years of glassy-eyed optimism in which nuclear matters were treated with positive distaste – as an unpleasant residuum of archaic modes of thought that humanity was now on the process of transcending.  Clearly, however, we badly need such conceptual tools after all.  The North Korean test did not really make this any more true than before, but it symbolizes the fact that the nuclear world is growing more, not less, complex.  It is not merely that we are not “yet” out of the nuclear woods, but indeed that we do not yet understand much about this section of the forest at all – let alone whether (or how) one might escape it.  So far, we have no modern-day Bernard Brodies, Herman Kahns, Albert Wohlstetters, or Thomas Schellings to help us get our minds around this, the second nuclear age, and we may suffer for their absence.

2.          Prospects for DPRK Denuclearization

The DPRK nuclear test also underscores what had been becoming clear for some time about the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula itself: it is not going to end anytime soon.  Our diplomats have long indulged in the pretense that we are still in the business to trying to get Pyongyang back to the table for “denuclearization” negotiations (e.g., with a revival of the Six-Party Talks process), and that negotiating away the North’s program remains the agenda of the day.  But we aren’t – not really, anyway – and it isn’t.

Unfortunately, what this test helps reinforce is the conclusion that the DPRK is not remotely interested in denuclearization.  Nuclear weapons have become critical to the regime’s survival strategy, its legitimacy narrative, its self-image, and the internal balance of institutional interests that keeps the brutal and volatile Kim Dynasty in power.

Indeed, nuclear and missile advances seem to have acquired a kind of coming-of-age symbolism for “Little Kim,” the boy-dictator of Pyongyang: they are a way of consolidating power and demonstrating his success in dynastic succession by bringing to fruition plans begun and advanced by his grandfather and his father.  The regime’s enormous and ongoing investments in nuclear weapons and missile development – investments that are all the more extraordinary for the appalling poverty and dysfunction of the DPRK regime in essentially every other respect – highlight this.  There is no sign whatsoever that the regime would ever consider negotiating away the only real “success” that the Kim family can point to in power.  The dictatorship in the North makes no bones about its commitment to nuclear weaponry, and this appears to be one of the only areas in which we probably can take its propagandists at their word.

And if indeed the most recent test did involve a nuclear device manufactured in part out of domestically-enriched uranium – which is possible, but to my knowledge still entirely unknown in the outside world – the test also underscores the possibility that North Korea now has not one but two fully-operational nuclear weapons pipelines: a plutonium one and a uranium one.

[Note: In April 2013, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) announced that it had detected radioactive gas residue consistent with venting from the DPRK test in February.  No information appeared to be available, however, to assess whether the nuclear explosion had been that of a uranium or plutonium weapon.  It was also announced in Pyongyang that month that the DPRK planned to reopen its dormant nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which it had previously used for the production of weapons plutonium.]

This highlights the point that it’s extraordinarily unlikely that the regime would be willing to negotiate all this away, but it also makes “denuclearization” much harder to imagine for a different reason.

Even if the North Koreans were in principle willing to negotiate away their nuclear weapons infrastructure, confirmation of the existence of their uranium program – long assessed to exist, but confirmed in 2010 and perhaps brought to fruition earlier this week with the new test – means that the verification measures upon which the outside world would have to insist as part of a “denuclearization” deal must be terribly, painfully intrusive if they are to have any chance at providing reasonable verification confidence.  Uranium enrichment is much easier to hide than plutonium production, which requires a nuclear reactor and a separation plant, and the possibility that North Korea now also possesses a complete, working uranium bomb cycle would necessarily mean that “denuclearization” would have to be deemed unverifiable unless and until very significantly intrusive verification protocols were in place and had been working smoothly for some time.

Especially for a regime like North Korea’s, the requirements for foreign verification confidence might be all but impossible to accept.  Their continued nuclear infrastructure development, therefore, is gradually pricing them out of the verifiable-dismantlement business.  Negotiated denuclearization is thus almost certainly not going to happen.  We have yet to admit it, but the bankruptcy of our longstanding diplomatic pretenses is becoming painfully clear.

3.          Proliferation Implications

The Rumsfeld Commission warned in 1998 that foreign ballistic missile threats – especially those presented by new arrivals in the business such as North Korea and Iran – were “broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than ha[d] been reported in estimates and reports by the [U.S.] Intelligence Community.”  Rather than look at such foreign programs as if they occurred in hermetically sealed national bottles, it urged that we be wary of transnational cooperation – that is, in effect, of the development of a globalized “virtual” laboratory in which proliferators can pool their expertise and advance together much faster and farther than one might expect from them on their own.

Thankfully, some of these developments have not occurred quite as fast as the Commission feared, but the basic intellectual point has proven – unfortunately – very sound.  North Korea’s programs demonstrate this.  As it has turned out, Pyongyang has been intimately involved in transnational WMD-related collaboration for many years, both on missiles and on nuclear weapons-related technology, and this globalization seems to have been very important in advancing both its own progress and that of other proliferators.

North Korea, for instance, seems to have been involved in nuclear and missile-related collaboration with Pakistan – and with the Pakistan-based smuggling network of A.Q. Khan – since the early- or mid-1990s.  Indeed, if press reports are to be believed, it has been reported to have played a role not just as a recipient of uranium enrichment technology and exporter of missile technology but as a supplier of uranium hexafluoride to Libya through the Kahn network and a contract provider of a plutonium-production reactor for Syria.  North Korean missile sales have been important to ballistic missile programs around the world, most notably in Iran, and there are reports of the presence of Iranian technicians at DPRK nuclear and missile tests.  As the Rumsfeld Commission hinted, in fact, the idea of a purely national program may have become a quaint and outdated notion.

Read in light of this history, the recent nuclear test is particularly worrying.  For one, if indeed the DPRK and Iranian WMD and missile programs are not so separate after all, it may be that this test represents to some degree an actual or potential advance for the Iranians as well.  This might be particularly true if the North Korean test indeed involved a relatively small weapon using enriched uranium – for that is presumably just the sort of thing the Iranians are aiming at in their own work, and for which they have gone to such trouble to build a production infrastructure.  (Iran seems to be building a plutonium production reactor at Arak, but is already enriching uranium to relatively high levels of U-235 purity.)

Even if there were not yet such well-established transnational cooperation between proliferators, moreover, North Korea’s track record of shocking unscrupulousness in exporting whatever will make it some money would make the risk of onward proliferation of materials and technology very great.  Our collective struggles with proliferation are far from over, and things may be getting worse rather than better.

4.          China’s Role

The recent DPRK test also underscores the problematic and ambivalent role of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the de facto backer and enabler for the North Korean regime.  This is not to say that Beijing precisely approves of the DPRK nuclear program, and indeed one imagines Chinese leaders to be unhappy with Pyongyang, or at least with the North Koreans’ continuing provocations.

China’s interest, presumably, lies in stability on the peninsula.  But stability, when viewed from Beijing, means the continuation of the DPRK regime, prevention of its collapse, and preclusion of a South Korean-led reunification that might conceivably place a U.S. military ally right on China’s border (while driving refugees over it).  And since the Kim regime is today unimaginable without, and indeed all but indistinguishable from, its WMD program, China is a critical enabler for this program.  Beijing’s desire for peninsular stability, therefore, makes it, in effect, the lifeline for the Kim Dynasty and its WMD programs: Little Kim’s most important source of economic sustenance and diplomatic protection.

The recent test underscores the tension inherent in China’s position.  Especially read in conjunction with other recent regional trends – specifically, not just China’s growing regional and global weight but Beijing’s growing self-assertiveness (and even aggressiveness) in what until relatively recently were long-dormant territorial disputes the South and East China Seas – it is seeming clearer than ever that the Asia-Pacific will be a major locus of international tension and competition for a long time to come.

5.          Resourcing the “Pivot”

In this regard, therefore, the DPRK test thus also highlights critical challenges facing U.S policy – especially with regard to the Obama Administration’s so-called “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia.  To be sure, there are some who think the “pivot” is just a political game being played on Americans by the Obama Administration.  Not keen, apparently, to be depicted as yet another “weak-on-national-security Democrat,” Barack Obama campaigned against the Iraq war not on the theory that America should withdraw from foreign engagement per se but because – he said – we had misunderstood the real objective.  It was Afghanistan, he said, that was our real “war of necessity,” and we needed to get out of Iraq in order to fight it.  After we got out of Iraq, however, he discovered that it was the Asia-Pacific that was really important: now we needed to get out of Afghanistan in order to move our emphasis there.  Some U.S. conservatives question the seriousness of the Obama “pivot” to Asia, suspecting that it is just an excuse to disengage in the Middle East before finding further reasons not to engage seriously on the Pacific Rim too.

To my eye, the jury is still out.  I like what I have seen of the “pivot” so far, and approve of much of the emphasis of political and diplomatic attention that has been given to the Asia-Pacific in this respect.  But so far the effort has been principally political, diplomatic, and symbolic.  (Twenty-five hundred U.S. Marines deploying intermittently to Australia is not nothing in real terms, but it isn’t much either.)  How serious the “pivot” really is will be seen not by the ephemera of such attention  but by whether or not there is a commitment of real resources over time, coupled with a sustained commitment not just to declaring a new approach a press conference in Washington but developing and honing it in consultation with East Asian partners.  (Its seriousness will also be judged by the degree to which we engage both with friends and allies in the region and with the PRC itself in promoting continued regional autonomy vis-à-vis Beijing and in resisting Chinese efforts to promote authoritarian modes of organization and political discourse in the region.)

The Obama Administration not long ago announced with much fanfare that it will start deploying 60 percent of U.S. Navy forces in the Pacific for the first time, for example, but no one is really sure what this means.  Sixty percent of what?  (Details matter!  Forty percent of a 300-ship Navy is a much bigger presence than 60 percent of a 150-ship fleet.  What capabilities will we really deploy?)  Declaring political, diplomatic, and security concern with Asian-Pacific security is an important start, but unless it is backed by resources and deep cooperative engagement with friends and allies, the “pivot” may yet be seen as a part of the geostrategic shell game of U.S. global retrenchment that some conservatives already suspect it to be.

6.          BMD (and Russia/China impact)

Given the degree to which recent North Korean events highlight the emergence of direct threats to the U.S. homeland from ballistic missile and WMD proliferation, recent headlines also have clear implications for ballistic missile defense (BMD).  BMD has been a hobbyhorse issue on the political Right in this country for many years, but the threat is unfortunately no longer merely speculative and anticipatory.  The current administration backed off from its predecessor’s interest in homeland-focused BMD in favor of a “phased, adaptive” approach that stressed deployable and re-deployable responses to regional threats on the assumption that homeland threats were still relatively far off.  That assumption is now being challenged by the proliferators themselves, and might turn out to be worryingly wrong.  We may need to turn attention to BMD – as well, not incidentally, as other damage-mitigation efforts related to making our country a “harder” nuclear target, and steps to improve our military’s ability to function in a WMD environment – more quickly and more emphatically than it has so far been fashionable in Washington to admit.

[Note: In March 2013, the Obama Administration announced that it would install additional ground-based interceptor missiles at Ft. Greely, Alaska, in order to counter the North Korean ballistic missile threat.  Additionally, the Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, General Robert Kehler, testified to Congress that it might be necessary also to establish an interceptor site on the East Coast of the United States as a hedge, in particular, against threats from Iran’s growing missile program.]

Such a necessarily renewed focus on homeland BMD, however, is likely to have spillover effects in our strategic dealings with Russia – and, to a lesser extent, China.  The Obama Administration places enormous store in seeking a follow-on to its supremely modest “New START” deal with Moscow, but the Russians have so far responded by demanding great U.S. concessions with regard to missile defense.  As third-party proliferator developments continue to push us down the BMD road with ever-greater urgency, this already considerable obstacle to Russo-American negotiations will surely become a greater one.  We will have to struggle with the tension inherent in this feedback loop.

7.          Test Ban

In theory, at least, it remains an Obama Administration priority to secure Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was shot down in 1999 in the U.S. Senate.  Most U.S. debates over CTBT – which is advocated as essentially an article of religious faith by the disarmament community, and equally fervently disliked by some hawks – revolve around the implications for the U.S. arsenal from making our current policy-based testing moratorium into a legally-binding one.

The North Korean test, however, highlights a further issue with CTBT: the requirement in that treaty that every one on a specified list of countries have ratified the CTBT before it can enter into force.  This list, significantly, includes North Korea – as well as India, Pakistan, Israel, and Iran.  Even if we were to ratify, therefore, it is all but certain that CTBT will not enter into force anyway.  Since I think part of good strategic policymaking is understanding where to spend our national leadership’s finite supply of political and diplomatic “capital,” it’s worth considering whether it is worth the effort and strategic risk of ratifying a test ban treaty that will never actually enter into force anyway.  There may be better efforts on which to spend our time and effort.

8.         “Zero”

North Korea’s tightening embrace of nuclear weapons possession also challenges another tenet of the received wisdom of the arms control and disarmament community: the ambition of global nuclear weapons abolition.  President Obama’s nuclear weapons policy has so far been – to my surprise – much more pragmatic, in practice, than one would have expected it to be.  Nonetheless, even if its officials now seem to accept that the destination will be a very long way off, the administration remains committed, in principle, to “leading the way” toward the eventual goal of abolition.

Pyongyang’s demonstration of just how desirable nuclear weapons actually are for a number of governments around the world, however, eats away at the politically-correct orthodoxy of “zero” thinking.  The North Korean program – not to mention its de facto backing by an increasingly powerful and regionally-assertive China – also increases the pressure felt by U.S. allies in the region.  This pressure increases their own incentives to develop nuclear weaponry, or at least the “hedge” of a technology-based weapons “option” in fissile material production and “space-launch” capabilities, raising the specter of catalytic regional proliferation.  Such developments are not inevitable, but forestalling them may turn out to require our own continued – or increased – reliance upon nuclear deterrence, especially if we cannot stomach the financial commitments entailed by a significant regional military presence.  So much for progress toward “zero.”

9.    ROK OpCon

Let me quickly mention another issue before making the tenth point and opening things up for what I hope will be a very interesting discussion.   In the next couple of years, we plan to turn over to our South Korean allies the role of assuming operational control (“OPCON”) of all allied forces on the Korean Peninsula in the event of war.

This is a very important step, both in practical and in symbolic and political terms.  Since the Korean War, a U.S. general has been designated to run all combat operations for both American and South Korean forces in the event that hostilities happen to break out anew.  Soon, this is supposed to switch: a South Korean will have that role.  Our ally, in other words, will have “graduated” to something akin to “adult” status in military terms – a full partner, and in some formal sense even the senior partner, in the event of war.

This is occurring, however, at a point when tensions on the peninsula remain gravely high – not least as the result of occasional DPRK provocations, such as the sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in 2010, that raise the specter of South Korean retaliation and peninsular escalation.

Personally, I think OPCON transfer is both a good idea and an unavoidable necessity, but it must now also be seen as a test for U.S. engagement in the region.  If we are serious about an Asia-Pacific security strategy – especially in a time in which our global engagement is hobbled by the self-inflicted wounds of Washington’s ruinous and escalating debt-fueled domestic spending – it will require us to work with our regional allies in ways we are unaccustomed to doing.

We have some vestigial memory, I think, of competitive strategy planning in the Cold War context vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.  In that environment, however, our role was much more that of predominant leader, essentially telling our subservient allies what the collective strategy needed to be.  In the Asia-Pacific of the mid-21st Century, we will need both to re-learn competitive strategic planning and to un-learn these old habits of monopolar alliance management.  Our challenge will be to work with our regional friends and allies to develop competitive strategies together, more as full partners than ever before.  Both in terms of political symbolism and operational effects, OPCON transfer is an early test case for this.  As new governments come into office in both Seoul and Tokyo, we will have to work harder at being a good ally than ever.

10. U.S. Engagement in the World

Which brings me to my final issue-spotting point.  It is something of an open question what the U.S. role will be in global security affairs in the mid-21st Century.  We face many challenges, and what are in many ways unprecedented constrains upon our options and flexibility.  The DPRK nuclear test does not create these dilemmas, of course, but it highlights them – and their myriad repercussions – in important ways.

In a sense, we do face a test of how serious a global power we wish to remain.  It is all to easy, here in Washington, to dismiss the difficult, expensive, and sometimes painful exigencies of global involvement with shallow platitudes about how “nation-building begins at home” and how if we only “get our own house in order” we’ll find the world a more congenial and manageable place for our security interests.  There is, of course, some truth in such comments: our dysfunctional budget dynamics and runaway mandatory spending programs do indeed present significant challenges to our security posture.

But the deeper truth is that the world is very unlikely to give us breathing space in which to withdraw, reconsolidate, and later return with new vigor.  Pyongyang’s ever more defiant embrace of threatening nuclear and missile postures simply highlights what should have been obvious all along: the world remains a dangerous and problematic place, these problems are not going away, and we will have to deal with them whether we want to or not.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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