This is an easy one: North Korea thinks (1) the US is out to exploit and steal resources from other countries and hence (2) Libya was foolish to giving away its main weapon, its nascent nuclear arsenal, which acted as a deterrent to American ambition. Accordingly,
“The truth that one should have power to defend peace has been confirmed once again,” the [North Korean] spokesperson was quoted as saying, as he accused the U.S. of having removed nuclear arms capabilities from Libya through negotiations as a precursor to invasion.
“The Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying, heaping praise on North Korea’s songun, or military-first, policy.
In a perceptive analysis, Professor Ruediger Franks adds two more examples that inform North Korean doctrine. Gorbachev’s attempts to modernize the Soviet Union led to its collapse and the emancipation of its satellite states. Saddam’s agreement to allow a no-fly zone after Gulf War I led inexorably to Gulf War II and his demise. The lesson: Get more nuclear arms and do not accede to any US demands.
Is there a solution that eliminates nuclear proliferation? Such a solution would have to convince North Korea that their real and perceived enemies are no more likely to attack even if they know North Korea does not have a nuclear deterrent. Most importantly, the US would have to eliminate North Korean fear of American aggression. In a hypothetical future where the North Korean regime has given up its nuclear arsenal, suppose the poor, half-starved citizens of North Korea stage a strike and mini-revolt for food and shelter and the regime strikes back with violence. Can it be guaranteed that South Korea does not get involved? Can it be guaranteed that Samantha Power does not urge intervention to President Obama in his second term or Bill Kristol to President Romney in his first? No. So, we are stuck with nuclear proliferation by North Korea. The only question is whether North Korea can feel secure with a small arsenal.
Tomas Sjostrom and I offer one option for reducing proliferation in our JPE paper Strategic Ambiguity and Arms Proliferation. If North Korea can keep the size and maturity of its nuclear arsenal hidden, we can but guess at its size and power. It might be large or quite small – who knows. This means even if the arsenal is actually small, North Korea can still pretend it is big and get some of the deterrent power of a large arsenal without actually having it. The potential to bluff afforded by ambiguity of the size of weapons stockpiles affords strategic power to North Korea. It reduces North Korea’s incentive to proliferate. And this in turn can help the U.S. particularly if they do not really want to attack North Korea but fear nuclear proliferation. Unlike poker and workplace posturing à la Dilbert, nuclear proliferation is not a zero-sum game. Giving an opponent the room to bluff can actually create a feedback loop that helps other players.