Shifting Gears

 Now that the war in Iraq is essentially over and planning for reconstruction has begun, the United States must rapidly shift its attention to the no less pressing - and perhaps more threatening - problem of North Korea.

 Now that the war in Iraq is essentially over and planning for reconstruction has begun, the United States must rapidly shift its attention to the no less pressing - and perhaps more threatening - problem of North Korea.  It is encouraging that Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly is meeting with the North Koreans, but Pyongyang is unlikely to make meaningful concessions absent a very strong American negotiating position that spells out the consequences of a failure to disarm and end sales of sensitive technologies and materials.  (This will also help to motivate Beijing.)  Accordingly, Washington must begin moving credible military assets to the region without delay. 

Monday's New York Times reported a division within the Bush Administration concerning North Korea .  The Secretary of Defense is reported to have proposed that Washington persuade Beijing of the necessity for regime change in Pyongyang as the only solution to the Korean crisis; while the State Department is said to advocate imposing sanctions on North Korea and blocking investment and aid to force its disarmament.  If this report is accurate, both proposals are unrealistic and possibly even dangerous.  

China may have some leverage over developments in North Korea , but is far from being able to force regime change there.  Moreover, China is not interested in regime change that could bring profound instability to the Korean peninsula in its wake (or the risk that American forces could be deployed right on China 's borders).  Neither will sanctions bring North Korea to heel; Pyongyang 's desire for foreign investment is not so great that it can be compelled to renounce its nuclear program.  And it is unrealistic to think that North Korea would remain idle while the U.S. tried to make sanctions and an economic quarantine work.  More likely, Pyongyang would work actively to raise money through the sale of nuclear technologies and materials to the highest bidder, a strategy already pursued during the 1980s and the 1990s.  After September 11, this is a very uncomfortable notion.  

What is needed is a strategy that will ensure that North Korea not only ceases to produce weapons of mass destruction (and their accompanying delivery systems) but also ceases proliferating such items to others.

The de-escalation of rhetoric concerning Syria (and Secretary Powell's planned visit to Damascus ) are welcome developments that free the United States to concentrate on coping with Pyongyang .  Syria is at most a regional problem; it does not present a major danger to vital American national interests and its support for terrorism has been more of a problem for Israel than the United States .  That is not to say that it should not be stopped, for breaking the backs of Syrian-supported terrorist organizations is an essential component of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reducing terrorism worldwide.  But North Korean nuclear warheads could kill thousands of Americans in a heartbeat.  This is the real threat to American national security and, now that Baghdad has fallen, Pyongyang must become the main priority.

Accordingly, the Bush Administration must begin plans to move a credible military force to East Asia .  North Korea (and China , for that matter) will only be convinced of our seriousness when negotiations begin if we demonstrate that we are prepared and able to use the military option.  Within the next few weeks, therefore, it is imperative that U.S. military strength in the Far East be upgraded.  This is, by the way, another reason that it is imperative for the United States to develop a more broad-based coalition to deal with Iraqi reconstruction: American attention and resources must be refocused on North Korea .

The Bush Administration should not seek an armed conflict with North Korea , which could have devastating consequences for South Korea , a key U.S. ally.  But Washington can only enter into talks from a position of strength if it is absolutely clear that we can and will use military power if there is no other choice to ensure an end to Pyongyang 's nuclear program and its assistance to others.  Certainly, we can and should offer a number of carrots-a non-aggression pact, increased investment, and so on-as a way to encourage compliance, but the stick must also be prominently displayed.  Nothing must be left to the imagination.  Pyongyang should understand that the United States desires that this problem be settled by peaceful measures, but is prepared to use all necessary means to guarantee a non-nuclear Korean peninsula.  And if talks are unsuccessful, the United States should indeed seriously evaluate its military options.

The United States should not be overly concerned about the format of negotiations.  How we talk with Pyongyang is not the critical issue; the main issues are disarmament and an end to proliferation.  We must make it clear that North Korean attempts to sell or distribute weapons technology to others is a deal-breaker.  And the North should understand that if we spot ships at sea carrying SCUD missiles, for example, we will not permit them to reach their destinations.

In many respects, North Korea is an even more complex and difficult problem than Iraq .  Dealing with Pyongyang may well also be more important to American interests.  It is essential to move quickly, while the consequences of Saddam Hussein's defiance are fresh in everyone's minds.  

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.  Paul J. Saunders is director of The Nixon Center .