Confronting the Korean Bomb

October 25, 2002 • Commentary

In a world already reeling from violence and the threat of war, North Korea has admitted to conducting a nuclear program and claimed to have “more powerful” weapons. Yet Washington for once seems to be taking a back seat on the Korean peninsula, which is how it should be, more than a half century after the Korean War.

Pyongyang’s announcement offered more disappointment than shock, given the criminal nature of the regime. Although the 1994 Framework Agreement defused what increasingly looked like a second Korean War, it obviously yielded no permanent solution to the threat of proliferation on the peninsula. Yet the Bush Administration has reacted with surprising circumspection toward North Korea despite its military bluster toward Iraq. Washington is pushing the major East Asian powers, allies South Korea and Japan and more distant partners China and Russia, to bring “maximum international pressure” on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. Even the European Union is threatening to cut off support for construction of two nuclear reactors under the 1994 accord.

The potential of a North Korean nuke is disturbing, but not worth another crisis. Of course, no one wants the so‐​called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to have a nuclear weapon.

Yet there is nothing sinister in its efforts: Pyongyang possesses a decaying economy and starving population. Most of its allies have defected to South Korea. The North has lost the inter‐​Korean competition.

Other than nuclear weapons, there is no reason for any country to pay attention to the DPRK. Indeed, the only way Pyongyang soon may be able to defend itself against a South with 40 times the GDP, twice the population, and vast technological edge is nuclear weapons.

The West’s main goal, then, should be to play out the Korean end game. Every day the peace is maintained is a day closer to the end of a communist DPRK.

The 1994 agreement was a worthy try. Today the critics are legion, but none of them ever offered a serious alternative.

Sanctions against the world’s most isolated regime? They were likely neither to win China’s support nor to affect the DPRK’s behavior.

Even worse were proposals for military strikes, which would likely have ignited another war. Although the allies would win, South Korea could lose her capital, Seoul, which lies near the Demilitarized Zone. That would be a frightful price to pay.

No one knows for sure what Pyongyang is up to. Maybe it realized that it had been caught. Maybe it believes that it can wring more concessions out of the Western powers.

In any case, Washington should take a low profile. South Korea and Japan are currently negotiating with the DPRK; they should demand compliance with past accords before more aid flows to the North.

Pyongyang’s relations with China are already strained. The latter needs to explain that it will be far less cooperative if North Korea is destabilizing the region. Moscow, with improving ties to the North, should be encouraged to weigh in as well.

The United States should reverse its past treatment of the DPRK. For years, Washington did not deign to notice the North’s existence.

But when Pyongyang ostentatiously began its nuclear program, America promised aid, trade and recognition.

Now the Bush Administration should treat North Korea with studied indifference, noting that its behavior is of far greater interest to its neighbors and that America intends to follow their lead. Without fanfare, Washington should suspend all aid, humanitarian and other.

Then it should tell the North that when the latter begins to behave in a more positive fashion, agreeing to dismantle its nuclear operation and allow in outside inspectors, for instance, that official recognition, trade, membership in international organizations and the like will follow. Even the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the South, which are no longer needed for the latter’s defense. Should the DPRK continue to behave belligerently, however, there will be nothing to negotiate.

No threats. No table pounding. Just calm discussion.

For too long the North has been convinced by the feverish Western reaction that its nuclear program was the only means to win respect from and squeeze more money out of its adversaries.

The United States and its allies need to communicate that Pyongyang will receive favorable attention only by becoming a responsible regional player.

North Korea’s announcement is bad news. But both South Korea and Japan, the countries most affected, have reacted more with anger than fear. Indeed, they worry more about an American overreaction than a North Korean attack.

Instead of leading another international crusade, Washington should try an alternative strategy — devolving responsibility on other regional players. North Korea is a pitiful, bankrupt, desperate nation that poses no threat to America. Leave containment up to its neighbors.

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