Ever since North Korea’s dramatic revelation that it was producing materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has considered a range of policy options—including a military strike on North Korean nuclear facilities. Although the administration officially dismisses such talk, President Bush has left the military option on the table, and influential advisers outside of the administration have openly called for military action along the lines of the Israeli attack on Iraqi nuclear facilities at Osirak in 1981.
But a military strike is the least desirable of a range of unpalatable policy choices. An attack on North Korea is likely to result in a full retaliatory response by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which would threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, as well as the nearly 37,000 Americans stationed on the peninsula. Even a successful attack could spread nuclear fallout throughout East Asia. Finally, a unilateral U.S. attack that destabilized the peninsula could upset relations with China and South Korea.
Rather than adopting the most dangerous course of action as a first resort, the United States should instead take the opportunity to reduce its threat profile in the region by focusing on multilateral diplomatic efforts that place primary responsibility for resolving the crisis on those regional actors most threatened by the North Korean nuclear program.