Commentary

A Nuclear North Korea? Live with it

This article originally appeared in South China Morning Post on October 1, 2003.
The Bush administration is apparently moving forward with its Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) against North Korea. Translation? The United States and its allies intend to interdict North Korean ships suspected of carrying contraband such as illegal drugs, missile components and, most important, nuclear technology.

But the PSI may be just the first stage of a US campaign to impose a full -blown economic blockade to get Kim Jong-il’s regime to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

This approach will not work. And even if it were effective, it could trigger a war on the Korean peninsula, rather than prompt North Korea to back down.

Almost certainly, the PSI itself will not get officials in Pyongyang to abandon their nuclear ambitions.

Interdicting cargoes at sea is not easy. The notable failure of the US and the rest of the international community to intercept more than a tiny percentage of illegal drug shipments underscores the difficulty of the task.

And anti-drug interdiction efforts have had much wider international support than the PSI will have.

A broader blockade is more likely to get North Korea to capitulate on the nuclear issue, but only if China participates. China supplies most of the North’s energy needs and is its main trading partner. China has significant economic leverage over its neighbour, if it is willing to use it. But it is unlikely that China will co-operate. It wants a non-nuclear Korean peninsula, and has shown increasing impatience with North Korea’s reckless behaviour.

Preventing Mr Kim’s regime from acquiring nuclear weapons is not China’s top priority, however. Rather, it wants to prevent a war on the peninsula and keep North Korea as a buffer between the Chinese homeland and the US sphere of influence in East Asia.

China is not likely to participate in coercive measures that would damage North Korea’s economy and might cause the regime to collapse. Worse, even attempting to seal off North Korea could trigger a tragedy. The North has warned that it would consider a US-led embargo an act of war.

Perhaps that is bluster. But it would be dangerous to call North Korea’s bluff. Indeed, there is a good chance the warning is serious. After all, a campaign of economic sanctions was the prelude to US military assaults on Serbia and Iraq. Therefore, it would not be so far-fetched for the North Koreans to believe that a US attack would follow a blockade.

Such a blockade might seem to be the middle ground, between continuing fruitless diplomacy and resorting to military force. But that perception is an illusion. A blockade would likely be both ineffectual and dangerous. A strategy with those characteristics has little to commend it.

Instead, the US should make a final push to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem through diplomacy. If that does not work, we may have to learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, as unpleasant as that prospect might be.

It is not as if America has not coexisted with nuclear nations before. It had to live with - and deter - such dangerous powers as the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and his successors, and China under Mao Zedong. If necessary, it can do so again.Ted Galen Carpenter is vice-president for defence and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs. He is the co-author of the forthcoming Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea

Ted Galen Carpenter is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.