Why The US Is Going Multilateral

A group of elites are calling for the invasion of a hostile country suspected of creating weapons of mass destruction and destabilizing the region. They’re saying that if the UN fails to act, we must do it on an ad hoc basis. They’re saying that we need to play hardball with our erstwhile allies.

Sounds like it’s those dreaded “neocons” and Iraq?

It’s The New York Times talking about North Korea. Apparently all the talk about the value of multilateralism and the idea that America can’t go to war without the imprimateur of the UN only applies in certain situations — mainly when Bush was making the same arguments himself.

The fact is, while there is something to those arguments, North Korea has something Iraq never had: the ability to wipe out a major city. The North has enough weapons to level Seoul poised along the DMZ. They could rain down 500,000 shells an hour from hardened positions. We would have to use a massive amount of force to stop the DPRK from pouring through the DMZ, and all sides would take nightmarish losses in the process. That status quo has existed for decades now, and it’s bought the North one hell of a good insurance policy against US or coalition action. There is almost no chance we could stop that kind of devastation in time, and certainly no peacekeeping force would be adequate to deal with the aftereffects.

The North Koreans want multilateral talks because it inflates their ego to be able to browbeat the world’s biggest superpower. They don’t want to negotiate because a negotiated settlement would be admitting even a partial defeat. Furthermore, there’s another white elephant in the room that isn’t getting reported in the media that explains the actions of the North Koreans in a consistent way.

The North Koreans need hard currency to keep their economy afloat, and the way they’ve been doing that is by counterfeiting massive amounts of $100 bills. The amount of money they’ve literally created that way probably amounts in the billions of dollars, and has probably been going on for years. The first North Korean-made banknotes were found in 1989, and the North Koreans have continued producing them since. The quality of these counterfeit bills are easily enough to fool all but the most sensitive investigative techniques.

The US Treasure Department and international organizations have severely hampered the North Korean’s counterfeiting operations, which has left Kim Jung Il without a source for that valuable hard currency. Those “supernotes” were his primary means of support, buying him the goods he wants for his lavish lifestyle on international black markets. It has also gone towards funding development of weapons of mass destruction.

International analysts think that the shuttering of that operation was one of the primary reasons for North Korea testing two missiles last July. It is also one of the reasons for Kim Jung Il’s belligerence on the nuclear issue. The reality is that the North Koreans don’t particularly need a nuclear deterrent — their conventional arsenal is more than enough to deter the US or anyone else from invading. The only real threat they conceivably face is from the Chinese, who aren’t particularly interested in taking direct control of North Korea’s nightmarish conditions. What they hope to achieve is an agreement that would preserve their counterfeiting operations while letting them keep their nuclear weapons.

Of course, such a plan is not acceptable to the US or anyone else, which is why we’re hoping that China will exert enough leverage to get North Korea to drop their demands. The Chinese are the DPRK’s primary benefactors, and are the only ones who can influence Kim Jung Il to change his nation’s policies. We can’t gain anything from bilateral talks, because what we want and what North Korea wants are completely incompatible.

The Bush Administration inherited a bad situation and made it worse by taking the position that a nuclear-armed North Korea was “unacceptable” without being able to do much to prevent it. Outside of military force, we have no real options in terms of stopping North Korea’s nuclear program — and military force would produce unacceptably high costs to us. However unhelpful some of our rhetoric was, it didn’t do much to change the dynamic of the situation in Korea. The North Koreans were rebuilding their nuclear capacity long before the change in diplomatic posture begun by the Bush Administration. The Agreed Framework was never truly implemented — the North Koreans continued to develop both nuclear weapons technologies and ballistic missiles during that time, merely shifting their emphasis from plutonium processing to the enrichment of uranium.

Our best course of action remains on an insistence on multilateral negotiations with all parties, and a doctrine of containment. North Korea cannot be allowed to proliferate technologies or threaten its neighbors — which is why a robust and multi-layered system of anti-ballistic missile systems is necessary. Already three Aegis-class cruisers and one Japanese ship have been outfitted with a boost-phase ABM system to shoot down incoming missiles. Further technologies to shoot down incoming missiles are being developed, including long-range interceptors that would destroy a warhead in space.

It’s odd to see The New York Times begging for the same “unilateral” diplomacy they decried just a few years ago. Then again, when one’s whole worldview is defined by opposition to one man, what can one expect?

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