North Korea's announced withdrawal Tuesday from the six-party talks in response to the UN Security Council's tepid reaction to the April 5 missile test raises a disturbing possibility. The US and the governments of East Asia have proceeded on the assumption that a diplomatic solution to North Korea's nuclear program is feasible. That settlement would entail Pyongyang's renunciation of its nuclear ambitions in exchange for diplomatic and economic concessions.
But what if the underlying assumption is wrong?
What if, for six years, Kim Jong Il's regime has been merely stalling for time while building nuclear warheads and perfecting a reliable missile delivery system? It would have been relatively easy for Pyongyang to ignore the UN's condemnation and remain in the six-party talks. The Security Council's action Monday was utterly anemic, since the outcome was not even a binding resolution. It was merely a statement from the council president condemning the missile launch and admonishing member states to more effectively enforce the hardly robust sanctions imposed in 2006 following the North's nuclear test. Yet North Korea used the council's response as an excuse to quit the talks.
It is time to ask what the US and North Korea's neighbors in East Asia plan to do if Pyongyang is not willing to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In other words, what is "Plan B" if the six-party talks fail? Since military action against North Korea is far too dangerous, there appear to be only three other options, and none is entirely appealing or without risk.
The first option would be to follow the suggestion of former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton and other hard-liners to impose far stronger multilateral economic sanctions. That strategy has a big defect, however. Both Beijing and Moscow are vehemently opposed to enhanced sanctions. China's opposition is crucial because without Chinese cooperation, coercive economic measures would have little impact on Pyongyang. And given the dependence on Beijing's willingness to continue funding the soaring US treasury debt, American officials are not in a good bargaining position to pressure China into endorsing robust sanctions.
The second option would be to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and rely on deterrence to prevent aggressive behavior. There is a credible argument for that approach. After all, the US has deterred other nuclear bad actors in the past, most notably the Soviet Union and Maoist China, and the vast US strategic arsenal probably could deter the likes of Kim Jong Il.
But being able to deter an outright attack still leaves room for dangerous North Korean mischief. Pyongyang's proliferation activities are especially worrisome. North Korea's apparent nuclear assistance to Syria makes one wonder what other countries – or even more troubling, nonstate actors – might also be beneficiaries of such aid. Living with a nuclear-capable North Korea would be, at the least, a nerve-wracking experience.
There is a final option that deserves consideration. It would amount to inducing (bribing) China to remove Kim Jong Il's regime and install a more pragmatic government in Pyongyang, along with the explicit condition of keeping the country nonnuclear. Part of the bargain also ought to be a commitment from Beijing to promote the reunification of the two Koreas within the next generation. During my visit to China last year, policymakers there professed loyalty to Beijing's longtime ally, but there was also a distinct undertone of exasperation with Pyongyang.
If the price were right, Chinese leaders might be bold enough to topple Kim with a palace coup. But the price would certainly not be cheap. At the least, Beijing would want a commitment from the US to end its military presence on the Korean Peninsula and, probably, to phase out its security alliance with South Korea. In all likelihood, Chinese leaders also would want US concessions on the Taiwan issue.
Those steps might not be easy for US policymakers. But American – and East Asian – leaders must ask themselves whether such sacrifices might be a necessary price to end the North Korean nuclear threat.
In any case, US and East Asian officials need to be thinking about a Plan B now. It is not a prudent strategy simply to hope that the six-party talks will produce an enforceable, effective solution. Given North Korea's record, that is merely the triumph of hope over experience.