The Dangers Caused by a Policy of Preemption
by Ash Pulcifer
March 1, 2003
Soon after September 11, the Bush administration labeled North Korea as a member of an "axis of evil." Then, in September of 2002, the Bush administration released the National Security Strategy of the United States of America. In this policy paper, the administration wrote, "To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively." Due to this policy, North Korea became concerned over the increasing militarism of the Bush administration. The strategy that North Korea devised to counter this perceived threat highlights the danger of preemption.
Kim Jong-il's government in Pyongyang, after learning that they were being targeted due to the American accusation that they were "evil," decided that the most effective way to keep the United States at bay was to create a military force powerful enough to deter the United States from aggression. After all, the Bush administration showed their respect for treaties by abrogating them one by one; it was not surprising that Pyongyang was nervous that the U.S. might also act in defiance of the 1953 armistice. In order to combat this perceived threat, the North released information that it was attempting to create more nuclear weapons, implying that it already had a few ready to launch.
Their nuclear weapons admission, or bluff, sent fear through the United States and caused a public relations calamity for the Bush White House. In the middle of planning an attack on Iraq, under the pretense of eliminating Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, suddenly North Korea came out actually admitting they had nuclear weapons! This statement by the North was smartly released only after the U.S. was becoming bogged down in the Middle East.
The crisis worked effectively, as the United States began to have to consider the grievances of North Korea. More importantly, North Korea was able to bring its political issues to the forefront of the world press at a time when the United States could only wave a threatening stick at Pyongyang.
Furthermore, North Korea jabbed the sword even deeper into the heart of White House rhetoric when they claimed that Pyongyang reserved the right to preemptively attack hostile nations! Pyongyang's clever strategy turned Washington's preemption policy on its head and left the Bush administration without an adequate response.
Since then, the administration has offered some economic incentives to the North, in exchange for Pyongyang's disarmament. So far, the North has refused to budge and continues to head down the path of creating nuclear weapons. Because the United States is preoccupied with Iraq, Pyongyang seems to be holding out for the best deal possible. Through their nuclear weapon bargaining piece, they are trying to squeeze lucrative concessions out of the United States in exchange for Pyongyang's silence. In fact, this is such a concern to the administration that it has caused Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to constantly reassure that the United States is capable of fighting a war in Korea and Iraq at the same time; however, as we have seen through history, tough words such as Rumsfeld's are usually used to cover up falsities.
This is where the danger lies in the Bush administration's policy of arm bending diplomacy. North Korea, knowing that the Bush administration is trying to keep the North's issues on the backburner right now, will attempt to pressure the White House into giving up great concessions to Pyongyang. If the Bush administration refuses to meet the North's demands, then the North will probably just continue to work on building their nuclear arsenal. The North figures it is a no-lose situation. Either Pyongyang will secure large economic concessions from the United States, or they will increase their nuclear forces.
In the case that North Korea creates or increases their nuclear arsenal, it will simply provide them with even more bargaining chips for the future. It is more difficult for a powerful nation like the United States to manhandle a nuclear capable country, especially when 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed on its border. Even in the case of a conventional war, the North would not only be able to cause massive U.S. casualties, but would be able to decimate the South Korean capital of Seoul within hours since it lies so close to the border, well within the range of North Korean firepower. The South is well aware of this and is no doubt putting pressure on the United States to refrain from creating another crisis on the Korean peninsula.
So, while to the outside observer it may look as if North Korea is following an irrational policy, it is actually coherent and follows the model set forth by the Bush administration. That policy is the theory of power politics, where states use threats to coerce other states into diplomatic concessions. The simple danger is that the threat of preemption, intertwined in the general theory of power politics, can often lead to unexpected conflicts that quickly spiral out of control.