Commentary

Washington’s Continuing Illusions About North Korea’s Nukes

As if we didn’t have enough problems in the world, North Korea has announced that it has completed processing the spent fuel rods at its Yongbyon reactor and is now building a nuclear deterrent. That news should have put official Washington in crisis mode. Those rods could produce enough plutonium to build half dozen nuclear weapons.

Yet the Bush administration’s response was surprisingly low key. A spokesman indicated that the United States was “concerned but skeptical” about Pyongyang’s claims. That attitude continues the White House’s record of underestimating North Korea’s determination to become a nuclear power. U.S. officials persist in believing that Pyongyang’s nuclear program is a bargaining chip in North Korea’s drive to wring political and economic concessions from the United States and its allies.

But the bulk of the evidence suggests that North Korea is deadly serious about joining the global nuclear weapons club. Consider the events of just the past year.

  • October 2002: North Korean negotiators admit to Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that their country has an enriched uranium program, a violation of several agreements to remain non-nuclear.
  • December 2002: North Korea removes International Atomic Energy Agency seals and cameras from the mothballed Yongbyon reactor. Later that month, the North expels all IAEA inspectors.
  • January 2003: North Korea announces that it is withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
  • April 2003: North Korea makes good on its threat to withdraw from the NPT, becoming the first country to renounce the treaty.
  • April 2003: The North Koreans take 8,000 spent fuel rods out of storage — a prerequisite for extracting plutonium.
  • May 2003: Pyongyang repudiates the 1991 joint declaration it signed with South Korea pledging to keep the Korean Peninsula non-nuclear.
  • August 2003: North Korean negotiators warn that their country is prepared to test a nuclear weapon if the United States does not adopt a more conciliatory policy.
  • October 2003: Pyongyang announces that it has finished reprocessing the fuel rods and is now building nuclear weapons.

On each of those occasions, U.S. leaders minimized the significance of North Korea’s actions and expressed confidence that the building crisis would be solved through diplomacy. Indeed, President Bush and his advisors have steadfastly refused to describe the situation as a crisis.

If this is not a crisis, it is a great imitation of one and it will certainly do until the real thing comes along. We now face the prospect of the world’s most ruthless, bizarre, and unpredictable regime possessing a significant number of nuclear weapons. Even worse, the nearly bankrupt North Korean regime might be tempted to sell one or more of those weapons to a cash-rich terrorist organization.

There’s now an urgent need for the Bush administration to immediately change its mindset. We all hope that Pyongyang is bluffing, and that its nuclear program is nothing more than a bargaining chip. If that is the case, there is at least a reasonable chance that the crisis can be defused through negotiations.

But what if that assumption about Pyongyang’s motives is wrong? North Korea’s actions certainly suggest that Pyongyang is serious about joining the global nuclear weapons club. The Bush administration needs to be thinking now about what it intends to do if that nightmare scenario proves to be true. The one thing the United States dares not do is use military force to end North Korea’s nuclear program. Such a reckless step would almost certainly trigger a major war in East Asia.

Other options are available, including applying the same deterrence and containment policies to North Korea that we used against the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. We could also foster a regional nuclear balance by allowing Japan and South Korea to build nuclear deterrents of their own to counter a North Korean arsenal.

There may be other alternatives. But the administration will never discover them if it persists in sticking its head in the sand about Pyongyang’s nuclear intentions.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs. He is a coauthor of the forthcoming book, “Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea” (Palgrave/Macmillan).