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North Korea: The Bee Comes Stinging

Have the Pentagon's warnings about North Korea been ignored for years?

September 8, 2003

Have the Pentagon's warnings about North Korea been ignored for years?

North Korea’s aggressive policy of nuclear brinkmanship does not come as any surprise to some of the professional military analysts who worked in the Pentagon a dozen years ago.

They presciently warned of the danger that Third World rogue states would seek to acquire their own nuclear weapons — and, when backed to the wall, would certainly threaten to use them.

That analysis even had a name: Nuclear bee-sting theory. It was developed by professional Pentagon analysts during the first Bush Administration. The Secretary of Defense in those days was Dick Cheney, President George W. Bush’s extremely powerful and influential vice president.

Yet today, the Bush Administration faces an increasingly grave — and still intractable — nuclear stand-off with North Korea.

Worse, the warnings and cautions of the nuclear bee-sting theory — as it was developed by the Pentagon’s own analysts — are increasingly ignored.

When it was formulated, bee-sting theory was a new theory of how nuclear deterrence would work in the post Cold War world. Instead of two superpowers — like the United States and the Soviet Union — facing each other in a global thermonuclear stand-off, it predicted a very different framework. It would also change the terms of reference for the new post-communism world.

Instead of two superpowers, it posited only one global hyper-power, the United States. And instead of the two superpowers intervening too often — or too directly — in the affairs of other nations, the rapid, easy U.S. victory in the first Gulf War of 1991 served notice about a crucial change.

Based on that precedent, rogue states around the world increasingly had to fear that the United States — or its allies — would get into the habit of moving directly against them and in the process might be prepared to topple their governments far more often.

In the 12 years since the Gulf War, that has indeed proved to be the case. The Clinton and Bush Administrations have both used direct U.S. military force — or the imminent threat of it — to topple recalcitrant governments in Haiti, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and now Iraq itself.

But Pentagon theorists warned a dozen years ago that this state of affairs could not last — and would provoke a counter-reaction. It was virtually inevitable, they counseled, that Third World rogue states — and even major sized powers like India — would seek to acquire their own independent nuclear weapons and delivery systems as quickly as possible.

There were two principal reasons for this: These nations could not hope to deter the United States from any conventional military confrontation. And they no longer had a super-powered global protector in the Soviet Union. The only viable strategic alternative was to seek to acquire their own nuclear deterrents as quickly as possible.

The Clinton and Bush Administrations both recognized this process and both sought to avert it in different ways — all unsuccessful.

The Clinton team encouraged nuclear non-proliferation efforts around the world. But it failed to stem the tide of nuclear weapons development in Iran, India, Pakistan or North Korea to any significant degree.

The Bush team has pushed ahead with an anti-ballistic missile system to try to protect the continental United States from nuclear missile attack by other nations. But that system, while prohibitively expensive, remains an untried and exceptionally risky last ditch line of defense.

The war on Iraq of 2003 was justified in large part by the need to prevent former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from actually acquiring his own nuclear deterrent — a development that, Bush Administration strategists feared, would make him untouchable.

But since North Korea is believed to already have several nuclear weapons at least in its underground bunkers, the argument for a pre-emptive strike that was used against Saddam can no longer apply in Pyongyang’s case.

Furthermore, the very success of the U.S. war in March-April 2003 to topple Saddam has clearly increased the fear and unpredictability of the isolated policymakers in Pyongyang. Not for nothing is North Korea widely known as “the Hermit Kingdom.”

Now, the North Koreans have become increasingly public and aggressive in their willingness to use the nuclear threat.

The nuclear bee-sting theory predicted this as a likely response by insecure Third World states, too. It predicted that “rogue state” leaders would act on the assumption that having a single nuclear weapon that could destroy an American city — or kill tens or hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in the field — would be sufficient to deter any major U.S. military action against them.

Right after the 1991 Gulf War, India’s then-chief of staff was asked privately by some American interlocutors what strategic lessons should be drawn from the rapid and overwhelming U.S. victory. He replied, “Make sure you have your own atomic bomb — before you challenge the United States.”

Within seven years of that pronouncement, India had defied Washington — and the world — to explode its own nuclear weapons.

Its neighbors and arch-rival Pakistan responded by doing the same thing within weeks.

Today’s Pentagon strategists face the dilemma that North Korea has already fulfilled the prophetic warnings of their predecessors. It has made the “nuclear bee-sting” deterrent theory a chilling reality. And the whole world now lives under its shadow.