Commentary

Dealing with the North Korean Nightmare

North Korea’s decision to reactivate its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and expel International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors has created a major international crisis. Pyongyang’s moves are a blatant violation of the agreement it signed in 1994 to freeze its nuclear program. They are also a violation of North Korea’s commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the 1991 de-nuclearization agreement concluded with South Korea.

The U.S. foreign policy community has split into two camps about how to deal with this emerging crisis. Unfortunately, the options favored by both camps are fallacious.

One faction emphasizes dialogue with Pyongyang. Former officials of the Clinton administration and most other liberals believe that Washington’s highest priority should be to try to salvage the 1994 framework agreement. They recommend pursuing the same strategy embodied in the 1994 agreement: bribe North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

But one ought to be skeptical about that approach. Given the failure of bribery in the past, there is little reason to assume that sweetening the bribe would induce Pyongyang to abide by its commitments. North Korea would likely pocket any new concessions and soon engage in a new round of cheating.

The Bush administration and most of its conservative allies reject the Clintonian enthusiasm for dialogue. Administration officials state that no formal negotiations will take place until Pyongyang ends its cheating. Meanwhile, the United States is seeking help from its allies in the region to tighten economic sanctions against North Korea as a way of pressuring the communist regime to capitulate on the nuclear issue.

Unfortunately, diplomatic and economic pressure probably won’t work much better than bribery. Since North Korea is already one of the most economically isolated countries in the world, sanctions are unlikely to have a decisive impact on regime behavior.

Moreover, the competing strategies of dialogue and economic pressure are based on the assumption that North Korea is merely using the threat of a nuclear program as a diplomatic bargaining chip. American hawks and doves both assume that the right U.S. policy will cause the North to give up its nuclear ambitions.

But what if that pervasive assumption is wrong? Pyongyang’s long-standing pattern of making agreements to remain non-nuclear and then systematically violating those agreements raises a disturbing possibility: Perhaps North Korea is determined to become a nuclear power and has engaged in diplomatic obfuscation to confuse or lull its adversaries. If that is the case, the United States and the countries of East Asia may have to deal with the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

If bribes or sanctions can’t prevent that result, some extreme hawks recommend another course: launching preemptive military strikes against North Korea’s nuclear installations. It is not a new idea. Hawkish elements in the United States suggested that course prior to the 1994 agreement-and, surprisingly, the Clinton administration developed contingency plans for such attacks.

But the military option would be more dangerous today than it was in 1994. There is no guarantee that the United States could identify, much less eliminate, all of the North’s installations. Worse, military coercion could easily trigger a general war on the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, if U.S. and Chinese intelligence sources are correct, North Korea may already possess a small number of nuclear weapons, making a U.S. preemptive strike especially risky.

Washington should consider another approach. It should inform North Korea that unless it abandons its nuclear program the United States would encourage South Korea and Japan to make their own decisions about also going nuclear. That prospect might well cause the North to reconsider. Indeed, if Pyongyang faced the likelihood of confronting nuclear adversaries in the region-and more prosperous adversaries that could easily build larger and more sophisticated arsenals-it might conclude that ending the cheating strategy and keeping the region non-nuclear would be a more productive approach.

Even if it did not reach that conclusion, a nuclear balance of power in northeast Asia would likely emerge instead of a North Korean nuclear monopoly. If the United States does not pursue this strategy, it may end up with a default policy of shielding non-nuclear allies from a volatile and dangerous North Korea armed with nuclear weapons. That would be the worst of all possible outcomes.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 14 books on international affairs including “Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic” (Cato Institute, 2002).