Ahhhhhh… Now I get it

Have you been wondering why the Bushies seem so … calm … about the imminent prospect that the lunatics in Pyongyang are going to build themselves a bunch of nuclear weapons and have enough plutonium left over to solve their foreign exchange problem by going into the export business? I’d been writing it off to sheer unwillingness to think about anything that might drive war with Iraq off the international front burner. But there seems to be more to it than that:

U.S. Said to Be Resigned to a Nuclear Korea

Washington is looking at sanctions and missile defense rather than military action against the North’s efforts, a Senate official says.

By Sonni Efron, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has concluded that it probably cannot prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and is focusing on managing the geopolitical fallout, informed Capitol Hill sources said Tuesday.

In closed briefings and private conversations with members of Congress over the last several weeks, administration officials have indicated that they expect North Korea to begin reprocessing its plutonium stockpiles soon, perhaps within a few weeks, the sources said. Once reprocessing begins, North Korea will be able to produce enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon a month.

A Senate staff member who is privy to the briefings said the administration was “preparing people up here for a de facto, if not declared, North Korean nuclear state and saying that this is something we can deal with through isolation, sanctions, deterrence and national missile defense.”

So a nuclear-armed North Korea can serve as Exhibit A in the sales campaign for whatever they’re going to call the next edition of Star Wars. Not a total loss, then.

OK, you don’t like that explanation? Fine. You come up with one. Or if someone has a reasonable defense of Bush’s Korean policy — or even an explication of what that policy is — I’d be happy to link to it.

Sean-Paul, the Agonist, who actually follows this stuff, offers some thoughts. He suspects that the Bush crew is doing something sensible, but not talking about it because it’s more sensible and less cowboyish than the organizational personal they’ve crafted for themselves.

UPDATE

A couple of readers have responded to my challenge by providing accounts of, and justifications for, what they take to be the Bush policy on North Korea. One of them asked me, reasonably enough, what I would propose doing.

I, reasonably enough, intend to duck that question, since I’m not qualified to express an opinion. But here’s my concern. I think I see an Administration so fixated on, or trying to keep the country and the international community so fixated on, Iraq that it seems to be giving only marginal attention to North Korea. Insofar as the two crises compete for attention, or insofar as something we want to do in one sphere will interfere with something we want to do in the other (if, for example, there’s a risk that North Korea would use the distraction generated by our invasion of Iraq to start reprocessing its plutonium in the hopes that by the time were ready to react it would stand as a fait accompli), some judgment may have to be made of which situation poses the graver threat, and I’m not convinced that the Administration has weighed that question carefully before giving priority to Iraq.

If at the end of the day Saddam Hussein is dead and Iraq occupied, but North Korea has nuclear weapons to use and to sell, I would regard that as a worse outcome than if at the end of the day SH is still in power but NK isn’t making weapons. My sense is that Bush and his advisors are acting as if the opposite were true: faced with that choice, they’d rather have SH out of power and NK armed. At least, they’ve been willing to put their prestige on the line behind the proposition that SH must go, and not behind the proposition that NK must not become the next member of the nuclear club.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com