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On NKorea, We've Missed out. On Iran Not Just Yet

Israel, Ma'ariv

By Tzach Yoked

"They could have done much more than what they’re doing now if they thought they could get away with it."


Translated by Viktoria Lymar

Edited by Steven Stenzler


12 April 2013



Obamas former  WMD Czar explains why the reactors in Korea haven’t been destroyed, what to expect in Iran and why the Chinese should be paid attention to.


If you believe the threats that came out of Pyongyang in the recent days – then you’re supposed to read these lines at the time a nuclear war is raging between North Korea and the United States and its allies in the region. It’s reasonable to assume this is not the case. 

It was enough to watch this week the embarrassing propaganda video of Kim Jong-un at an outdated firing range to the tune of war, with the film quality of an obsolete home camera, to understand: that’s not how you go to war against the world’s strongest [super]power. As well, the map of the U.S. targets presented to Jong-un in a special meeting of the general staff  looked more like a geography project for high school students than something to head to the battlefield with. Not to speak of the propaganda video uploaded by the communist regime to the Internet under the threatening headline, according to which the United States is "within the range of our atomic bomb" – a caption where the only word holding on to reality is "our." 

Apparently, that could have been a crisis composed of all the materials thrillers are made of. A hotheaded leader shrouded in mystery – when in the age of electronic information revolution, Western intelligence sources can’t even agree on his exact age, not to mention what’s going on inside his head. Were it not for the feeling that we've been to this movie before over the past several years – from quite a few standpoints, this is some sort of poor imitation of the main protagonist’s father, Kim Jong-il, who turned the “hold me back” method into the leitmotif of his failed foreign policy. 

So why has the United States still refused to relax also this week? Mainly because insanity has its own rules. Because if with the father, Kim Jong-il, the feeling was that we’ve got a madman who knows how far to push the envelope and when to let go just before it tears, then no one is sure it’s the same thing with the son. Ultimately, provocations have their own dynamics. Even Hassan Nasrallah, crazy by himself, admitted that if he had known that the kidnapping of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev would lead to the Second Lebanon war, he wouldn’t have ordered it. In other words, wars break out sometimes even if neither party has an interest in launching them. Moreover, it’s clear to everyone that provocations of the type of the drowning of a South Korean navy ship in March 2010, which took a death toll of 46 people, will not go as quietly as it happened three years ago.

"I think that in all likelihood, this is one big show and psychological warfare designed primarily to threaten and intimidate,"* says Gary Samore in a special interview to Musafshabat [Ma’ariv political analysis and commentary weekend supplement] who for four years served as President Obama's special Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction Counter-Terrorism and Arms Control. "North Korea has done it enough times in the past, and this is a recurring pattern. At the same time, I think it is wise on the part of the United States and South Korea to prepare for the possibility that Kim Jong-un will deviate from his father’s pattern of action and spearhead a limited military attack of the kind of the sinking of the ship and a barrage of shells at Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Only this time, I think the new president of South Korea Park Geun-hye is determined to react much more forcefully than her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak – which can deteriorate the situation quickly."


Don’t Want War


Samore held office in the Obama administration for four years prior to being appointed earlier this year to the head of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the prestigious Harvard University. The man served ex officio as senior advisor to the President for arms control and the prevention of weapons of mass destruction proliferation and WMD terrorism. He was responsible, among other things, for coordinating efforts to halt the Iranian nuclear project and achieving an agreement between the United States and Russia to limit the nuclear arsenal of both countries. Now, from his office at Harvard, he’s seeking to chill a bit the winds of war, clarifying that he doesn’t take Kim Jong-un too seriously, but admits that even as someone who was for four years exposed to the most classified intelligence material that reached the administration’s top brass, he doesn’t have too much idea about what’s happening in the most isolated country in the world.

What can we learn by now from Kim Jong-un’s conduct?

"The rumor is that Kim Jong-il named his son, Kim Jong-un, to be operational commander in the two attacks on South Korea’s naval vessel and the South Korean island. But clearly, Kim Jong-il had a good sense of how much to pull the strings in those conflicts before he lowered the flames and renewed the contacts – the pattern he followed in 2006 and 2009. The question is whether Kim Jong-un will follow in the footsteps of his father, or for various reasons and a desire to prove himself, he’ll go a step too far. What is also crystal clear is that the new president Park Geun-hye is not going to be humiliated as was her predecessor in office who did not respond to the North Korean aggression. Thus there’s enough risk here so that Washington and Seoul make it clear that we have the will and ability to act if North Korea carries out a limited attack." 

To what extent are we really aware of North Korea’s military capabilities or the decision-making process in the country?

"The head of the CIA recently said in a special testimony that we’re talking the most closed country that poses the greatest difficulty in everything regarding collecting information. It’s also  understood that Kim Jong-un is not a familiar figure, and frankly, I think he is not known even to the Chinese. However, I think Kim Jong-un is going to be limited in what he’ll choose to do beyond the call for foreigners to leave the country and the threat of nuclear war. It is clear that North Korea does not want a war its going to lose, and it is clear that South Korea too does not want a war. So you have here two parties engaged in threats and counter threats – while both of them don’t want war, and the only question is whether any of them will make a mistake. And its quite clear that South Korea won’t be the first to attack." 

I guess you don't take seriously their threat to strike the American cities. On the other hand, they have performed so far three nuclear tests. What do we know about their ability to assemble nuclear warheads?

"It’s quite obvious that they currently don’t have the ability to hit American cities, and I think they also are many years far away from this capability, so that we’re not talking an immediate risk. In terms of immediate capabilities, of course, it is understood that they have missiles capable of targeting Seoul and Tokyo; the big question is whether they can mount nuclear warheads on those missiles, and it is very unclear. They have conducted three nuclear tests, but we know very little about these experiments, so we really can't reach a firm conclusion one way or the other." 

What are the odds that the North Korean aggression will drive to an instant arms race from the side of its neighbors, particularly Japan and South Korea?

"Perhaps, in the future we’ll see such a move on their part, but I think that at this stage the confidence of those countries with respect to the resolve of the United States to protect them is big enough, so that we won’t be witnessing pressure from the side of the public and the social elite to develop nuclear weapons. But it may be that if within ten or fifteen years we don’t manage to deal with the threat posed by North Korea, the danger of such a race will grow."

The Chinese Connection


Following the last days’ bellicose rhetoric, many in the United States turned their gaze toward the neighbor from the southwest, China – the country that in the recent weeks provided further proof that everything in life is relative, when it was seen by many in the West as a responsible adult in the whole story. China, as it is clear to everyone, is of crucial importance in the unfolding of the crisis, not only by virtue of its geographic proximity to North Korea and the tight relationship between the two countries, but mostly because it is largely the one who has its finger on the power switch of the entire country. 

China is not only the last Pyongyang’s ally, but chiefly, the almost exclusive supplier of food and energy to the country whose residents are in a permanent state of existential hardship. The big neighbor provides to North Korea 90 percent of the energy it imports, 80 percent of the products its inhabitants buy and 45 percent of the food the North Korean residents consume. Beyond the benefit of commercial dependence on the part of Kim Jong-un’s regime, indeed, North Korea also carries strategic importance to China as a buffer zone between Communist China and democratic South Korea, where there are about 30 thousand American soldiers.

Nevertheless, even though the last thing the Chinese want is a regional crisis that could lead to a mass exodus of tens of thousands of refugees into their territory and affecting the volume of Chinese trade yet Beijing, at least on this phase, is being careful not to exploit the North Korean dependence to practically dictate a forced policy. "I think the Chinese are working behind the scenes very strongly to warn Pyongyang that it has nothing to expect for Chinese aid if it keeps increasing the tension intentionally – conduct that could even result in Chinese sanctions and cuts in food and energy assistance that allow North Korea to continue to exist." 

There’s a lot of talk about Chinese exports to North Korea, but the figures show that these are exports totaling several billion dollars a year, compared to Chinese exports to the United States, the other side of the story, worth $400 billion a year.

"The Chinese are very unhappy with Kim Jong-un," explains Samore. "They don’t like very much the aggressive and disrespectful behavior on Jong-un’s part that began with the April 2012 decision to blow up the agreement with the United States (a deal under which North Korea was supposed to suspend the development of long-range missiles and its nuclear program in exchange for an aid package and the easing of sanctions - T.Y.)." 

"In addition, indeed, the current escalation is against the interests of China. On the other hand, the Chinese have always been cautious not to leverage North Korea’s economic dependence for fear that it will lead to instability in the region, the collapse of North Korea and Pyongyang’s military action that will set the whole region on fire. So China is facing a serious dilemma here: how to curb North Korea on the one hand, and on the other hand – how to not bring about a regional crisis."


Between Defensive and Offensive

In the past weeks, Israel closely monitored the recent goings-on in that neighborhood
although seemingly, Israel is not a party to the matter. It’s just that as is clear to all, these developments could have a big impact on another nuclear crisis, in Iran, that only last week showed its muscle again when it blew the talks with the six world powers in Kazakhstan. Two crises intertwined with coarse threads of madness, instability and to a great degree, quite a bit international hesitancy that enables the growth of wild weeds without disturbance. Over the last days, anonymous sources in the Israeli government were already cited who leveled criticism at the U.S. line toward North Korea – conduct which could provide a boost to the nuclear ambitions of Iran that may realize that at the end of the bill, even the West understands only force. 

Do we have an indication of nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea?

"No, I don’t see any kind of cooperation in the nuclear field. There's an extensive and longstanding cooperation in the area of ballistic missiles and conventional weapons, but there is no cooperation in the nuclear field." 

Do you see similarities between the nuclear motivations of Iran and North Korea?

"We’re talking about countries acting for completely different reasons. In the case of North Korea, here they see themselves as a weak country surrounded by much stronger countries like China, the United States, Japan, South Korea. From this standpoint, the North Koreans see nuclear weapons as safeguards against the neighboring countries. Iran’s motive is more complex, it is partly intended for defensive needs, since they still consider the United States a kind of threat – but in the case of Iran, this is about an ambition of regional supremacy, the road to which requires nuclear arms. North Korea’s weapons are more defensive, while Iran’s are more offensive.

But it looks like in both cases, there is a repeated pattern of provocations, returning to the negotiating table, stalling, another provocation, some more fruitless talks and nothing moves.

"The United States has never had a real military option against North Korea, even if during the 1994 crisis, there was an option to destroy the country’s nuclear reactor  which according to estimates, already contained enough plutonium for one or two bombs. However, the main concern was that attacking North Korea would ignite a broader conflict over the entire region when certainly, there was the fear of hitting Seoul exposed to a conventional missile attack. Thus the options of the United States in Korea were far more limited. By contrast, in Iran’s state of affairs, the United States indeed has a lot more options, including the use of force, because the possibility that Iran would cause actual harm to the United States’ allies in the region Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey – is much more limited than was that of North Korea to escalate the situation with South Korea and Japan." 

Recently, it seems that Washington and Jerusalem found it hard to adopt a uniform time-frame for us to prevent an Iranian bomb.

"I think it depends first of all on political calculations inside Tehran. At the moment, Tehran is deliberately delaying its nuclear activity – and this is in the wake of external pressure and the threat of military action. Lately, for example, Iran has made it clear that it converts some of the enriched uranium, about 20 percent, to fuel for running the reactors. Iran is doing this purposely to avoid a crisis at this time. The supreme spiritual leadership can change their minds after the elections in June, but as of now, they seem to constrain the uranium enrichment. And therefore, it's not a question of ability, but rather of a political decision, – which means that there is a very great value in continuing the pressure on Iran in order to dissuade it from the further progress."

"I don't think we have missed the opportunity, we still have time to continue the current policy, keep on increasing the diplomatic and economic pressure, leave a small margin for a diplomatic deal, but even without that, I think the duress was effective in terms of creating pressure on the spiritual leadership which led to limiting the nuke activities. They could have done a lot more than what they’re doing now if they thought they could get away with it. But they know they can’t."



Original Hebrew article:


Photo credit: Al-Monitor The Back Channel; Middle East Online



* All Dr. Samore's words throughout the article constitute an accurate translation of the Hebrew phrasing in the original Ma'ariv text.

Related: The Asahi Shimbun- Former Obama aide: North Korea only 'bluffing' with belligerent rhetoric