WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- The North Koreans have taken a page out of Israel's deterrence playbook. And like Israel, they did so because they were scared.
North Korean officials have made the bombshell admission to U.S. diplomats that their country for years has continued a nuclear development program in secret, even though this was in clear contravention of its 1994 commitments to the United States, U.S. and South Korean officials told UPI early Thursday.
Why did they make such an admission at all? And above all, why did they make it now?
The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is probably the most inaccessible capital city on earth. But certain things are known for a certainty, and very clear inferences can indeed be drawn from them.
First, senior South Korean intelligence officials and close advisers to President Kim Dae-jung have repeatedly told UPI Analysis that North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and his innermost circle are truly ignorant of the nature of democratic societies in the wider world. Even worse, these top South Korean officials say, the North's Kim and his advisers are also still in a very much of a state of paranoid fear about everyone outside their own tightly policed borders.
That is why the South's President Kim made his "Sunshine" policy of very cautious détente with the North the center-piece of his nation's national security policies. And it is also why the South's Kim and his own top officials were so appalled at what they considered the reckless actions and rhetoric of President George W. Bush when he visited the Demilitarized Zone border between South and North. They feared Bush's tough talk could wreck the fragile foundations of their own détente.
The North's leaders, however, do watch the outside world. And it was certainly not lost upon them when Bush, in his State of the Union Address at the beginning of this year, included their country along with Iraq and Iran in an "axis of evil." Now they see Bush is on the brink of going to war with Iraq to topple its longtime leader, President Saddam Hussein.
Mighty Iran has a population of 80 million, four times that of either Iraq or North Korea. But North Korea has the same population, a smaller area and a far, far smaller resource base than Iraq. Also, where Iraq can at least hope for uprisings of popular support among the Middle East's remaining 260 million Arabs outside its borders, or in the wider Muslim world, which numbers around one billion, the North Koreans are out on their own.
Their only supporter is neighboring China. It is determined to keep the North intact as a protective buffer against the contagion of the free speech, democratic societies of South Korea and Japan.
But while China has been making long-term, serious and massive military investment to prepare for a possible air-sea war against the United States in the Taiwan Straits, it is no position to actively militarily intervene, on the North's side against the far superior U.S. high-tech military forces.
Besides the North's revered, although catastrophic, founding ideology of chu-chi, or independent self-reliance, teaches that national security and even survival can be entrusted to no other nation's hands.
The clear strategic inference to be drawn from such premises is that a nuclear deterrent would be necessary to maintain the cherished independence of the North against an outside world presumed to be entirely hostile against it. Similar motivations based on all too real recent history motivated democratic Israel's founding father David Ben-Gurion to launch an ambitious nuclear development program in the 1950s.
Ever since then, Israel has been coy about its nuclear weapons capability, generally believed to amount to no less than 200 to 300 nuclear weapons and the delivery systems to carry them. Up to now, the North Koreans have been even more coy, denying they even had any nuclear program beyond what they had admitted to for civilian power-generating purposes.
Going public now is clearly a risk. There is a danger that the South may break off its "Sunshine" relationship with the North and that Japan may beak off its own budding dialogue with Pyongyang.
However, both these developments appear unlikely. President Kim in Seoul and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Tokyo both have far too much political capital invested in dialogue and détente with the North to break it off now. Besides, these policies have proven very popular with their electorates.
The main risk of the North Korean admission lies, as Pyongyang leaders well know, in what Bush's reaction in Washington will be. They may be giving him a justification to turn the heat up on them after he has finished with Saddam.
However, it appears that North Korean leaders have, rather, made the calculation that only the fear that they already possess nuclear weapons will deter Bush from taking major military action against them at some point soon.
Indeed, they may well already be convinced that Bush has already made up his mind to launch U.S. armed forces against them after Iraq is conquered. If that is the case, it would follow that only indicating obliquely but still clearly that they may already possess a nuclear deterrent will be sufficient to keep Bush off their backs.
For more than a decade Pentagon nuclear strategists have had a name for this kind of calculation. They call it "nuclear bee-sting" theory. It means that Third World or "rogue state" leaders believe the threat of having a single nuclear weapon that could destroy an American city or of 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, when 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."
And one of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's top national security advisers said, "This is not fantasy. Nuclear bee-sting theory is very real. The Americans are treating it this way. And so are we."
With their announcement Wednesday, the North Koreans appear to be adopting "nuclear bee-sting" theory as their deterrent strategy as well. In poker-playing terms, it is unlikely to be a bluff.