The North Korean nuclear crisis that has been simmering for months is getting closer to the boiling point, and it urgently requires a better-coordinated, more effective diplomatic effort to cool tensions and reach a deal to verifiably dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. In late April, at the first such meeting in six months, North Korea’s representative reportedly told a senior U.S. official that Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons. Although the restart of talks was a positive step, and long overdue, the nuclear boast could polarize views, making a peaceful resolution of the conflict even more difficult.
As the Bush administration considers its next move, its first priority should be avoiding statements or actions that could worsen the situation. During the past two years, the administration’s “axis of evil” approach has clearly not halted North Korea’s nuclear programs. Instead, North Korea has undertaken a dangerous series of actions: it expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, withdrew from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and accelerated uranium-enrichment and plutonium work.
North Korea’s defiance must be met with firm, universal condemnation. At this stage, however, the pursuit of economic sanctions would do little to stop North Korea’s dangerous nuclear activities and could further escalate tensions. Nor should the administration talk publicly about military options, which would further stoke North Korean fears andbrinksmanship. South Korea would not support preemptive military action, in part, because it would likely lead to a major conventional war that could devastate Seoul.
Despite North Korea’s ominous and typically brash negotiating tactics, the United States cannot afford to rule out further talks or to lose focus on achieving prompt results. Doing so would only give the North the time it needs to produce plutonium and uranium for additional weapons, thus further undermining regional security. The late-April meetings in Beijing were only the second such exchange in more than two years. Each time, substantive proposals for resolving the crisis have been withheld or overshadowed as a result of dramatic accusations and threats.
Further diplomacy, absent a realistic U.S. negotiating strategy, however, will not eliminate the North’s nuclear weapons potential either. For months, the Bush administration has been at war with itself over how to handle North Korea. Hard-liners resist further talks and want to use the Iraq war to pressure Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear programs or else to meet the same fate as Saddam Hussein’s regime. Other factions seek a diplomatic solution but have been undercut by North Korean missteps and unnecessarily tough talk from other administration officials.
As a result, the administration’s plan has amounted to little more than demonizing Pyongyang and demanding that it dismantle all of its nuclear capabilities before agreeing to substantive negotiations on achieving that very goal. Such an approach might play well on the television talk shows, but it leaves Pyongyang without a face-saving means to meet the United States’ bottom-line objectives and risks further escalation of the crisis.
Pyongyang’s claim that it already has nuclear weapons suggests it fears it is on the U.S. target list and believes that nuclear weapons can help avoid attack. In reality, North Korea’s sizeable conventional force already constitutes a powerful deterrent, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons increases, not decreases, the motivation of Washington to strike. The Bush administration should be willing to clarify that it bears no hostile intent and pledge not to attack the North so long as Pyongyang freezes current nuclear activities and allows the verifiable dismantlement of any nuclear weapons, along with its fissile material production facilities, to proceed according to a clear timetable.
Meanwhile, to reinforce its North Korea policy and preserve the nuclear nonproliferation regime, the United States must adopt a more consistent and balanced global strategy. If the lesson Pyongyang has drawn from the Iraq war is that it needs nuclear weapons, the lesson it has drawn from Pakistan and India is that there are only short-term penalties for violating nonproliferation norms. These two NPT holdouts, along with Israel, have maintained nuclear weapons programs with little or no U.S. criticism.
In the next few weeks, other Asian states must help press for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and urge North Korea and the United States to seek a comprehensive agreement. A new deal centered on security assurances and energy assistance in exchange for a verifiable end to the North’s nuclear and missile programs is still feasible. Such a result would not represent a reward for bad behavior as much as it would eliminate Pyongyang’s stated motive for going nuclear and help end a new Asian arms race before it starts.