At Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the authorization of use of force in Syria, Secretary of State Kerry stated that “North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day. They are listening for our silence.” Defense Secretary Hagel mentioned North Korea’s chemical weapons stockpiles, arguing that weakening of the norm against use of such weapons would “embolden other regimes to use or acquire chemical weapons.” No doubt North Korean leaders are closely watching the U.S. debate over intervention in Syria, but they will exploit Syrian intervention for their own ends regardless of what action the United States decides to take.
The Syria intervention debate draws a sharp distinction between weapons of mass destruction (WMD) acquisition and WMD use. North Korea has gained WMD capabilities and seems committed to their further development safe in the knowledge that their efforts will not elicit intervention. North Korea’s rocket launch and nuclear tests earlier this year elicited rhetorical condemnation, U.N. sanctions resolutions, and even shows of U.S.-ROK military force, but no pledges of kinetic action. The fact that the debate over intervention is about Syria and not about North Korea reaffirms to Pyongyang that its development of WMDs as part of a strategy to deter the United States has been correct.
North Korea has already crossed other WMD red lines drawn by the United States with impunity, including lines drawn to prevent North Korea’s nuclear acquisition and proliferation. Today North Korea’s most prominent customer for WMD-related items is Syria. Syria nearly completed the secret construction of a reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium with North Korean help before the facility was bombed in the mid-2000s. The North Korea-Syria WMD relationship has extended to chemical weapons, with at least two North Korean shipments of chemical weapons related cargo having been interdicted in recent years based on reports to the UN Panel of Experts. Yet chemical weapons have barely appeared on the U.S.-DPRK policy agenda despite Pyongyang’s extensive stockpiles.
North Korea has successfully avoided accountability for its persistent efforts to expand its WMD capacity. The United States intervened in Iraq at the same time that North Korea was on the verge of conducting its first nuclear test. North Korea has publicly stated that the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya affirms that North Korea has taken the right path by pursuing its nuclear development. A U.S. focus only on Syria, despite evidence of North Korea’s support for the latter’s WMD programs, will strengthen Pyongyang’s belief that its nuclear weapons program is successfully deterring U.S. and international efforts from holding it accountable for its actions.
Thus, a precision strike to teach Syria a lesson on WMD use will not deter North Korea from building a capacity to directly threaten the United States or from using WMD if it deems necessary. It may instead strengthen the position of North Korean hardliners that it must build this capacity to strengthen deterrence. A U.S. strike on Syria will however provide a measure of assurance to U.S. allies who live under the threat of North Korean chemical and nuclear weapons use. Secretary Hagel’s references to concerns expressed by South Korea’s defense minister over Syrian use of chemical weapons and South Korea’s support for U.S. intervention at the G-20 reflect these concerns.
Earlier this year, North Korea made reckless threats to conduct a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States, highlighting the consequences that may ensue from North Korea’s persistent, gradual drive to marry a nuclear and long-range delivery capability that in only a few years could directly threaten the United States. North Korea is indeed watching, but its leaders are unlikely to take a lesson from U.S. intervention in Syria and instead will use whatever happens in Syria to its advantage. It is self-delusion to tell ourselves that action or inaction in Syria will prevent North Korea’s efforts to build a nuclear blackmail capability.
Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.