Creative Proliferation Solutions: Dealing with Iran and North Korea

On November 25, 2003, a meeting was held at The Nixon Center on the topic of "Creative Proliferation Solutions: Dealing with Iran and North Korea.

On November 25, 2003, a meeting was held at The Nixon Center on the topic of "Creative Proliferation Solutions: Dealing with Iran and North Korea."  Dr. Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center and Executive Editor of The National Interest, moderated the discussion, featuring Dr. Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group and Senior Fellow and Director of Eurasia Studies at the World Policy Institute, and Dr. Ilan Berman, Vice President for Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council.

Dr. Gvosdev opened the session by returning to the opening paragraph of an essay recently written for National Review Online:  "The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) framework is crumbling. It doesn't matter whether Iran, for example, agrees to new inspections or pledges to suspend enrichment programs, because once a country can say, "We have the technology," it can easily conceal components or begin work at sites that are not known to the inspectors. Nor is North Korea likely to open all of its facilities, even if it receives the security guarantees it has demanded as preconditions for any further talks on nuclear disarmament. Rather than discussing ways to patch an increasingly leaky roof, it is time to begin envisioning a new structure altogether."  (  This is especially needed now that we have situations where a number of countries can exist in a state of nuclear ambiguity.  He then introduced the two speakers with an eye to commencing a discussion on how to realistically deal with new proliferation challenges, based on their contributions to The National Interest.[1

Ian Bremmer began by remarking that the capacity of the United States to get North Korea to "de-proliferate" is very small.  Yet, he pointed out that, in contrast to Saddam Hussein, who was willing to risk the very survival of his regime in reckless gambles, Kim Jong-Il is "risk-averse."  This may prove to be an important difference in how plays his diplomatic hand.

He then outlined the Bush Administration's strategy on North Korea, which he characterized as having three parts.  The first is patience.  The administration has sent the message that North Korea is not a crisis and that the United States is prepared to wait and to engage Pyongyang diplomatically to find a solution.  The second is the need for this to be a multilateral strategy, a recognition that the U.S. cannot engage North Korea alone but must involve other key countries.  Finally, the third element is gradualism--moving slowly to step up pressure and tighten the noose around Pyongyang, so as to induce them to step down.  This, of course, is in marked contrast to the strategy employed against Iraq, where Washington made it clear that Iraq was a crisis and that the U.S. was willing to act unilaterally if necessary to remove Saddam Hussein.

This strategy has had its successes.  Global markets, taking their cue from Washington, have decided that there is no crisis over North Korea and that there is no significant political risk to be invested in Korea or Asia in general.  This is not to say that there is no anxiety over North Korea but a recognition that this is not an issue that must be dealt with today.  The second is that the Bush Administration has been successful in forging a multilateral coalition to deal with North Korea, involving the Russians and closing some of the distance between itself and the positions taken by China and South Korea.

But the biggest challenge--and one that has not yet been dealt with--is North Korea itself.  North Korea is faced with a decision: it can accept U.S. demands to verifiably and credibly de-proliferate--something that would entail extensive and rigorous inspections--a 1994-style Framework agreement is no longer on the table.  Or it can decide to escalate.  Much depends on what North Korea actually wants: money and security, or nuclear weapons (or more accurately, what are its priorities if it cannot have both options). 

He pointed out that a regime has never de-proliferated (South Africa, Belarus' or Kazakhstan gave up nuclear weapons only after regime change).  North Korea has used scarce resources to build up a nuclear program, so it is difficult to believe that after such effort it would give it away for money and paper guarantees.

Indeed, North Korea may choose to test a nuclear device.  Such a step would collapse Korean financial markets and might adversely affect the overall Asian market.  Unlike with Iraq, financial markets have not "priced in" a crisis on the Korean peninsula.  The second is that China and South Korea might decide that they could live with a nuclear North, especially if the other alternative was a messy regime collapse.  Certainly, Beijing and Seoul recognize that a nuclear North is a "bad option", but see regime collapse and instability - especially one with nuclear weapons - as an even worse alternative.

He closed by noting that we have now reached a time when an isolated state that can acquire weapons of mass destruction has the ability to wreak unacceptable damage to thwart a superpower from carrying out its will.