On the third weekend in March, while America was transfixed by the most exciting NCAA basketball tournament in years, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the Far East, in the midst of a series of meetings with her opposite numbers in six Asian countries. Arriving in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, she boarded a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter and flew to Command Post Tango, the underground bunker that would be the nerve center for the U.S. military in the event of a war against North Korea. While not quite on the order of Ariel Sharon's parading around the Temple Mount in Israel, Rice's move was undeniably provocative. No high-ranking American official had ever visited the bunker before—and the choice of a military site as the secretary of state's first stop seemed to represent a gentle rattling of the sword. What's more, Rice spoke against a backdrop of computers and television screens monitoring the 20,000 South Korean and American soldiers who were at that very moment engaging in one of their regular war-game exercises—practicing, in effect, to fight a war with North Korea no sane person hopes ever to see.
The North Koreans responded by rattling their sword right back. First they announced they were boosting their nuclear arsenal, as a "deterrent" against U.S. attack. And then, apparently, they began to act: a few weeks after Rice's visit, U.S. spy satellites detected a reduction in activity at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Possibly this meant that the reactor had run into mechanical trouble; more probably, it meant that the North Koreans had shut down the plant to withdraw spent fuel rods in order to reprocess them into fissile material for nuclear weapons. What was clear was that the situation represented a grave international crisis.
Last year The Atlantic addressed a similar crisis—this one centering on Iran's nuclear ambitions—by conducting a war game that simulated preparations for a U.S. assault ("Will Iran Be Next?" by James Fallows, December 2004). As Sam Gardiner, the retired Air Force colonel who ran the simulation, put it, the exercise was designed to produce a "clarifying effect" by compelling participants to think through the implications of certain decisions and plans of action. The result was a bracing corrective to the notion that Iran's nuclear capacity could be taken out with a quick military strike.
The North Korean situation is also ripe for war-game treatment, because of the extraordinarily difficult military and diplomatic challenges it presents. Iran, considered an urgent national-security priority, is thought to be three to five years away from possessing even a single nuclear device. North Korea is widely believed to have as many as ten already, and to be producing more every year. (It is also the first developing nation thought to be capable of striking the continental United States with a long-range ballistic missile.) And whereas Iraq did not, after all, have weapons of mass destruction, North Korea is believed to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons (mustard gas, sarin, VX nerve agent) and biological weapons (anthrax, botulism, cholera, hemorrhagic fever, plague, smallpox, typhoid, yellow fever). An actual war on the Korean peninsula would almost certainly be the bloodiest America has fought since Vietnam—possibly since World War II. In recent years Pentagon experts have estimated that the first ninety days of such a conflict might produce 300,000 to 500,000 South Korean and American military casualties, along with hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. The damage to South Korea alone would rock the global economy.
All-out war, however, is not the only—or even the gravest—threat North Korea currently poses to U.S. security. For some years now the fear that has kept homeland-defense experts awake at night is that terrorists will detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city. In fact, the danger that Saddam Hussein would sell nukes to terrorists was a basic rationale for invading Iraq in at least some of the Bush administration's iterations of it. But North Korea is, if anything, more likely than Saddam to do so, if it hasn't already. The country's weak economy has owed its continued functioning in part to the income from vast smuggling networks (primarily for drugs and counterfeit foreign currency) and sales of missiles and other arms to such fellow outlaw nations as Libya, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. At some point the North Koreans may decide they have more than enough nuclear weapons for their own purposes and sell the extras for cash. The longer North Korea keeps producing nukes, in other words, the greater the likelihood that one will find its way to New York or Washington.
Unfortunately, trying to take out the regime's nuclear sites with surgical strikes—an iffy proposition at best, since we don't know where some of the sites are—might provoke a horrific war. And trying to create regional nuclear deterrence by allowing South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan to become nuclear powers would undermine the global nonproliferation system that has been in place for more than forty years. The North Korean regime may be fundamentally undeterrable anyway: President Kim Jong Il has reportedly said that he would "destroy the world" or "take the world with me" before accepting defeat on the battlefield. And as bad as Kim is, what comes after him could be worse. A complete collapse of the regime might lead not only to enormous refugee problems for China and South Korea but also, in effect, to a weapons-of-mass-destruction yard sale for smugglers.
There are still other dangers. If we did successfully invade, our troops would be likely to eventually find themselves near North Korea's Chinese border. The last time that happened, in 1950, the Chinese counterinvaded. (A 1961 treaty obliges China to do so again in the event of an attack on North Korea.) Meanwhile, other nations—most notably Iran—are watching carefully to see whether North Korea will be allowed to become an official nuclear power without reprisal.
All of which is to say that any move in North Korea is fraught with potentially disastrous implications. Time is not on our side, as the shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor in April makes clear; the longer we wait to take action, the more nuclear weapons Kim Jong Il may build, and the more threatening he will become. Something needs to be done. But what?
T he seeds of the current crisis were planted late in the winter of 1993, when North Korea declared that proposed International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of two of its nuclear sites represented an unwarranted violation of sovereignty. The Kim regime subsequently threatened to begin converting 8,000 spent fuel rods from its Yongbyon plant into weaponizable nuclear material. As tensions rose, Pyongyang became more belligerent, at one point reminding the South Koreans that it wouldn't be hard to turn Seoul into "a sea of fire." The United States, for its part, contemplated pre-emptive strikes on Yongbyon.
By the spring of 1994 the United States was probably closer to nuclear war than it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. On June 15 President Clinton and others sat in the White House Cabinet Room listening to Secretary of Defense William Perry present an array of military options against North Korea. Clinton was preparing to evacuate American civilians from the country when word came that Jimmy Carter—who was in Pyongyang as an independent citizen, not as an official emissary of the Clinton administration—had reached a preliminary deal with the North Koreans and was about to go on CNN to announce the terms. The parties returned to the negotiating table, and in October of 1994 they signed the so-called Agreed Framework. In exchange for North Korea's freezing nuclear-weapons development, the United States, South Korea, and Japan would supply Pyongyang with light-water nuclear reactors and with 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil annually.
Congressional Republicans attacked the agreement, calling it "appeasement." The North Koreans eventually cheated on it, a fact nobody disputes; but some have argued that the Agreed Framework was a success despite the cheating. It averted an imminent war, and it shut down the North Korean plutonium program for nine years—thereby limiting Pyongyang's arsenal to one or two nuclear weapons as of 2002, rather than the nearly 100 it might otherwise have been able to develop by then.
In the summer of 2002 U.S. intelligence discovered that the North Koreans had secretly restarted their weapons development using highly enriched uranium. When Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went to Pyongyang in October of 2002 to confront the North Koreans, he expected them to deny the existence of the uranium program. They didn't; in fact, evidently they soon restarted their plutonium program, by continuing to reprocess the 8,000 spent fuel rods from Yongbyon (which had been in storage since the signing of the Agreed Framework). In October of 2003 the North Koreans said they had finished the reprocessing—meaning, if true, that they had enough fissile material for up to six new nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, not wanting to appear to reward bad behavior, has since adamantly refused to negotiate directly with the North Koreans. Six-party talks involving China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—regional powers that the Bush administration hoped could help hold the Kim regime to account—began in August of 2003, but after the third round of talks, last June, the North Koreans pulled out, demanding direct bilateral negotiations with the United States.
All this loomed in the background when, six days after Condoleezza Rice's visit to Command Post Tango, The Atlantic convened a North Korea war game of its own, in Washington, D.C. The assembled knowledge was extensive, and the range of Washington viewpoints more or less complete—hawk to dove, right to left, neocon to realist.
As in our Iran war game, Colonel Sam Gardiner led the proceedings. (Gardiner has run war games for more than twenty years at the National War College and various other military institutions; the strategy that General Tommy Franks used to seize Baghdad in 2003 had its origins in a game Gardiner had designed some fifteen years earlier.) And once again the premise of the game was a meeting of the "Principals Committee"—the highest-ranking national-security officials of an imaginary U.S. presidential administration—to generate recommendations for the president. Gardiner explained that he would be presenting to the principals a military briefing from the perspective of the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM).
Playing the part of the CIA director was David Kay—a man well equipped for this job. In the early 1990s Kay served as the chief nuclear-weapons inspector for the IAEA and the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq, and in June of 2003 he was asked by the actual CIA director to lead the Iraq Survey Group that searched for (and never found) WMD in Iraq after the U.S. invasion.