Is there an answer to the North Korean nuclear and missile crisis? And could such an answer hold the key to the future of the Iranian nuclear program? As it stands now, President Trump has called North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ICBM missiles “very, very bad behavior”. With each new ICBM test, the US president has threatened to use force to stop the program. But force will likely kill hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps more. Also, the last Korean War (1950-1953) brought about Chinese involvement, eventual stalemate, and the permanent partition of the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea understands that in today’s contested world order, as in the Cold War, only nuclear weapons can work as the ultimate insurance policy against potential regime change or an enemy policy of nuclear annihilation. Israel learned that lesson during the Suez Crisis (1956) when the US refused to back the Jewish State after it was threatened by the Soviet Union. What happened to Saddam Hussain and Muammar Gaddafi in this current century could happen to any dictatorship if it runs afoul of any nuclear power. Neither Iraq nor Libya had the protection of some other nuclear power leadership. Without some kind of major deterrent system in place, smaller powers have been, and are currently, at the mercy of states with advanced weapons.
Europe has NATO. America’s Gulf allies have the 5th Fleet and the American airbase at Qatar. But even so-called “extended deterrence” from friendly nuclear power states is not the same as a state’s own nuclear weapon linked to its own ICBM launcher. In the case of North Korea, the prospect of Chinese protection from a US-led precision attack was never sufficient. In a US-China nuclear showdown, would Beijing really risk a nuclear war to protect North Korea? During the Suez Crisis when faced alone against a nuclear power, Israel began to ask itself even harder questions. Hence the Jewish state pursued and acquired a robust nuclear and ICBM program.
If “extended deterrence” with Chinese support can raise serious questions for North Korea, what about Iran? Iran is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Although it has regional militia and rocket power, its conventional military power is weak. It is also surrounded by US forces in both the Gulf and Afghanistan. During its eight-year war with Iraq (1980s), very few countries came to its aid (Israel was an exception). Iran was occupied by the Soviet Union during WWII, and US interference in its internal affairs had been rampant during the Cold War. Even if Iran wasn’t a revolutionary state, the prospect of being surrounded by nuclear powers — the US, Pakistan, Russia and Israel — would mean that Tehran would still be a prime candidate for nuclear proliferation.
The current state of the world’s myriad of serious hot spots means that the US-led multilateral alliance system has been weakened. It is being challenged by both China and Russia. This is happening on the Korean Peninsula, the East and South China Seas, Syria and the greater Middle East and in Europe, especially in the Ukraine. But what happens to the nuclear program in North Korea will have serious repercussions for Iranian nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
The utter failure of the Obama administration to negotiate a durable nuclear deal with Iran has meant that within a decade, the threshold for an Iranian nuclear breakout will become a matter of weeks. This crucial time element means that Iran will have the deterrent of the current nuclear agreement to build up the sufficient research to develop the following: its economy, conventional military capacity, advanced nuclear enrichment program, missile range and accuracy, and its surreptitious relationship with North Korea. All this will be done with European cash infusions based on legitimate commercial transactions, especially from France and Germany.
The prospect of a Middle East nuclear proliferation is untenable. So too is the prospect of either North Korea or Iran in possession of long-range ballistic missiles. However, if the North Korean nuclear and missile program isn’t stopped soon (hopefully through negotiation) the risk of a serious China-US crisis, possibly involving Russia in a second theatre of war, is real. So too is further advanced North Korean-Iranian research and development collaboration. An American-North Korean war could also have grave consequences for Japan, Taiwan, Australia and even Hawaii. President Trump has promised the American people that North Korean nuclear weapons on ICBMs will not happen on his watch. Unlike Obama, Trump — in the absence of a negotiated settlement — apparently would use military power to prevent such a scenario.
All of America’s Middle East allies are watching events on the Korean Peninsula with great anticipation. This problem will either be solved by President Trump, or the perilous consequences for regional nuclear proliferation will become acute. But the Korean nuclear dilemma must not be solved without an alternative answer to the question of what comes after the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA). We cannot wait for the Iranians to be at the threshold of a nuclear bomb to start asking ourselves this question. More importantly, is the present global system of a challenged US leadership even conducive to anything other than conflict or potential nuclear proliferation?
The future will require out-of-the-box thinking from Washington. However, President Trump’s initial inclination to seek an alternative relationship with Russia has been met with disdain by the conventional foreign policy establishment. These people are supreme cynics and view the world through a harsh Cold War lens. The possibility of the US maintaining a unipolar global power projection into the future has become economically debilitating. On the other hand, there are also foreign policy realists and/or isolationists opposed to this unipolar establishment. These people believe that certainly Europe and the Middle East should be left to their own devices. Both of these views — the establishment and its various critics — need to re-think their approach to foreign affairs.
The US needs to pull back from Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, but not unilaterally. Only under the conditions of negotiated settlements can such cautious withdrawals be conditioned. They can only be accomplished with Chinese and Russian partnership and cooperation. This will mean a whole new relationship of the three great powers (and eventually India) toward international relations. Global peace must be the priority. The historic existence of empire, hegemony and regional domination must become a thing of the past.
To accomplish a de-nuclearized Korean Peninsula, US troops must be withdrawn and replaced by a firm US-China-Russia security guarantee toward both North and South Korea. This will also require an equal understanding that Taiwan and the Taiwan Straits need to be demilitarized. Taiwan will still be a part of China, but as an autonomous zone free from coercion. Without such a combination, East Asian nuclear proliferation will continue to run the risk of rapid intensification. A hands-off policy toward Taiwan will assure all the smaller countries of the region that the great powers have adopted a new and far more peaceful partnership toward each other. The same would be true for a US withdrawal from South Korea.
In the Middle East, I have written nearly three hundred essays in pursuit of a Zone of Peace in conjunction with a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone. I believe this is the best answer for Israel and the region in the long run. If such a zone does not develop, within a decade, the Middle East will become a first-strike nuclear tinderbox. This will place the region on a nuclear hair-trigger, given the latest advancements in defensive anti-missile technology. Now is NOT the time for status-quo tinkering as advised by the various foreign policy think tanks and establishments. Nor is it the time for isolationism or withdrawal without negotiation. Grand Bargains are not far-fetched. In these perilous times, they have become a necessity. What is needed is a whole new approach to international affairs. In our nuclear age — if not now, when?