North Korea’s recent actions in violation ofthe clear intent of the agreement it signed in1994 to freeze its nuclear program have igniteda crisis in northeast Asia. Unfortunately, allof the frequently discussed options for dealingwith this crisis have major drawbacks.
One option would be to pursue the samestrategy embodied in the 1994 agreement: bribeNorth Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.Given the failure of bribery in the past, however,there is little reason to assume that sweeteningthe bribe would induce Pyongyang to honor thecommitments that it is already violating. A newround of cheating would be likely.
A second option would be to launch preemptivemilitary strikes against North Korea’snuclear installations. But such a strategywould be profoundly dangerous. Militarycoercion could trigger a general war on theKorean peninsula. Indeed, if U.S. and Chineseintelligence sources are correct, North Koreamay already possess a small number ofnuclear weapons, which would make a U.S.preemptive strike especially risky.
A third option is to pressure North Koreato honor its commitments by imposing neweconomic sanctions. Since North Korea isalready one of the most economically isolatedcountries in the world, however, sanctions areunlikely to dissuade Pyongyang from pursuinga nuclear weapons program.
Washington should consider anotherapproach. It should inform North Koreathat, unless it abandons its nuclear program,the United States will encourage SouthKorea and Japan to make their own decisionsabout also going nuclear. That prospectmight well cause the North to reconsiderand keep the region nonnuclear. Even if itdoes not do so, a nuclear balance of powerin northeast Asia might emerge instead of aNorth Korean nuclear monopoly.
The crisis illustrates the folly of Washington’sinsistence on maintaining a militarypresence in East Asia. In a normal internationalsystem, North Korea’s neighbors – SouthKorea, Japan, China, and Russia – would haveto worry the most about Pyongyang’s nuclearambitions and would take the lead in formulatingpolicies to deal with them.