Curb Your Enthusiasm

June 27, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on June 27, 2008.

North Korea has finally submitted its long‐​delayed declaration regarding its nuclear program. In response, President Bush announced that the United States will remove North Korea from the State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism and lift some of the economic sanctions against the regime. There is widespread applause both in the United States and East Asia about these developments.

Such enthusiasm seems excessive, or at least decidedly premature. The steps that both sides took are actually quite modest, and while they keep alive the six‐​party talks (the diplomatic process aimed at getting Pyongyang to end its quest to develop nuclear weapons), we are still a long distance from Washington’s stated objective of a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to the program.

The declaration itself seems to contain some major holes. Most notably, it does not indicate whether Pyongyang has already built weapons with the plutonium extracted from the Yongbyon reactor. That is a rather‐​serious omission, since experts estimate that the plutonium was sufficient for at least five to seven weapons.

There is also no confirmation in the declaration that the Yongbyon complex is North Korea’s only nuclear facility. Pyongyang has had more than two decades to develop alternative sites, including underground installations that would be difficult to identify through satellite surveillance. Since the six‐​party talks have not yet produced an agreement for on‐​demand international inspections, there is no way to be even reasonably confident that the nuclear program was confined to Yongbyon. North Korea is scheduled to implode the cooling tower at Yongbyon, but that spectacular visual may not mean much if the regime has built other installations.

The enthusiastic response (and the palpable sense of relief) to Pyongyang’s declaration and Washington’s conciliatory gestures may reflect the realization that the other policy options are all so bad. If the diplomatic process does not succeed, the United States and the other participants in the six‐​party talks face unpalatable alternatives.

Critics of the Bush administration’s approach, including former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, suggest that the United States push for more rigorous economic sanctions, and perhaps even a blockade. But that strategy is a nonstarter, because China has made it clear that it opposes any further pressure on Pyongyang. As a major source of food and energy supplies to North Korea, Beijing clearly has significant leverage over its troublesome ally. But without China’s active cooperation, additional sanctions against Kim Jong-il’s government would be largely ineffectual.

Another option would be to launch air strikes to take out the Yongbyon facility. But even if such an attack did not result in the nightmare scenario — a general war on the Korean peninsula, which would be a very real danger — it would have little potential to defang the nuclear program. The Yongbyon complex has been mothballed for months. If North Korea still has an active nuclear program, it is now centered elsewhere. Bombing Yongbyon would be akin to shooting a corpse.

A final option would be to accept the emergence of North Korea as a full‐​blown nuclear‐​weapons power. That in all likelihood will be the default outcome if the six‐​party talks fail. A nuclear‐​armed North Korea is hardly a desirable situation, but neither is it an inevitable catastrophe. The United States has deterred other bad actors who developed nuclear arsenals, most notably the Soviet Union and Maoist China, and the vast U.S. arsenal would likely do the same to Kim Jong‐​il.

Nevertheless, a nuclear North Korea would raise tensions markedly in East Asia, and that clearly is not in America’s best interest. There is also the worrisome evidence of North Korea’s proliferation activities, including its apparent transfer of nuclear technology to Syria. Such conduct does not inspire confidence that Pyongyang would be a responsible nuclear power.

Given the unsavory alternatives, the Bush administration is probably correct that the six‐​party talks offer the best hope of resolving the crisis through the termination of North Korea’s nuclear program. But the success of that approach remains a long‐​shot prospect. The depressing reality is that North Korea has violated every previous agreement it has signed on nuclear issues. That record creates the strong possibility that Pyongyang is merely engaging in a diplomatic charade — a strategy of delay — while it continues its quest for a nuclear‐​weapons capability.

The latest developments may be mildly encouraging, but at best they warrant tepid and uneasy cheering.

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