Pyongyang and American Priorities(1)

North Korea's January 10th announcement that it plans to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is another sign that the Cold War-era edifice of arms control treaties-crafted for a largely bipolar world-rests on shaky ground.

North Korea's January 10th announcement that it plans to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is another sign that the Cold War-era edifice of arms control treaties-crafted for a largely bipolar world-rests on shaky ground.

The NPT was not simply an idealistic venture; it was a pragmatic arrangement useful to nuclear as well as non-nuclear states in limiting the dissemination of the technology necessary to fabricate nuclear weapons and their delivery systems (as covered under the related Missile Technology Control Regime). Leading nuclear powers were not keen to see the unchecked spread of nuclear weapons, especially in volatile regions of the world where the temptation to use such devices might lead to limited nuclear exchanges. On the other hand, non-nuclear states sought security in the knowledge that they and their neighbors would not need to engage in arms races that would divert limited funds from more pressing development projects.

Like Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations following its occupation of Manchuria, North Korea's actions present a direct challenge to an existing international regime. Pyongyang's act is a defiant statement that the NPT no longer meets North Korea's national interests. It is also a challenge to the rest of the world to either enforce the provisions of the NPT, or acknowledge that it has proven ineffectual to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

This must be of particular concern to the United States, which has a strong interest both in preventing Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons and in preserving the NPT, which is an important pillar of an international system that overwhelmingly favors the United States. Accordingly, if North Korea does not face the severest of consequences for its withdrawal from the treaty and its secret development of nuclear weapons, its example will serve only to encourage other governments with nuclear ambitions. As one of us wrote in an earlier issue of In the National Interest, "Doing less will only encourage more of the same from North Korea in the future. Worse, it could also contribute to other hostile regimes' nuclear temptations." ("Iraq, North Korea, and the Law of Unintended Consequences," by Paul J. Saunders, at

The problem, of course, is how to balance this imperative against other pressing matters. Needless to say, the United States is currently engaged in a massive military deployment to the Persian Gulf and seems likely to be at war with Iraq in the near future. Suggestions that North Korea should be a greater priority for America have generally been dismissed with the superficial statement that the United States has passed the point of no return in dealing with Baghdad and must maintain its primary focus of attention on Iraq. Apart from budgetary and logistical considerations, this position has also been buttressed by the self-serving but not entirely false argument that a decisive victory in Iraq could increase American leverage over Pyongyang. At the same time, significant attention has centered on the question of whether or not the North Korean situation should be considered a "crisis." The important U.S. interests at stake deserve more serious discussion.

The starting point of any such dialogue must be the recognition that Washington has considerably more options than most people seem prepared to recognize. We may eventually reach the conclusion that many of them cannot be exercised at an acceptable cost-but this should be a reasoned conclusion based upon careful analysis rather than an a priori judgment.

The Bush Administration's increasingly seems to be attempting to appear sufficiently flexible in dealing with Pyongyang to buy time to resolve U.S. concerns about Iraq. As suggested above, the two principal advantages of this approach are that we are well into both the diplomatic and military processes necessary to deal with the problem and that a (presumed) decisive defeat of Iraq could discourage Kim Jong-il from testing American resolve. The greatest cost of this approach is that it could create the impression that possessing even one or two nuclear weapons is an effective deterrent in dealing with the United States. Also, it is not clear how quickly Washington could shift gears to deal harshly with North Korea even in the wake of the rapid and impressive victory widely expected against Iraq. The challenges of "the day after" may well be greater than those of the conquest itself and could produce their own unexpected constraints.

One of many alternatives to the "Iraq-first" approach would be to give United Nations weapons inspectors more time to work in Iraq-a move that would be welcomed by America's allies, including Britain-and to focus more squarely on North Korea in the interim. Saddam Hussein does not currently have nuclear weapons, and he can make little progress in obtaining while inspectors are roaming around his country. Moreover, he is too much a survivor to take provocative action with U.S. troops poised to invade. Finally, the longer the inspectors work, the stronger the case against Iraq becomes. And as unappealing as it may be to many in east Asia, and particularly to South Korea, the United States could do substantial damage to North Korea's fledgling nuclear arsenal and its supporting infrastructure with a very modest military force. A brutally honest explanation of this fact, combined with a plan to dismantle North Korea's nuclear program and discuss economic or other assistance, might be successful. If not, Washington should certainly consider a unilateral attack on Kim's nuclear facilities.