Living with the Unthinkable
Mini Teaser: A nuclear North Korea is inevitable. Coexist and contain.
That warning should be the large stick in Washington's policy mix.
The carrot should consist of a willingness to extend diplomatic
recognition to, and lift all economic sanctions on, North Korea.
Making that country's economy more prosperous is the most realistic
prospect for ensuring that North Korea can derive sufficient income
from legitimate sources and thus will not be tempted to engage in
nuclear proliferation. That, of course, will require extensive
economic reforms by North Korea along the lines adopted by the
People's Republic of China over the past quarter-century.
Lifting economic sanctions is certainly no guarantee that North
Korean leaders will have the prudence to adopt the required reforms,
but Pyongyang has shown some signs in recent years of modifying its
ideology of Juche (self-sufficiency) and opening itself to the
outside world economically. In the spring of 2003, the North Korean
regime started building market halls around the country to encourage
the activity of private merchants, and it loosened rules about who
may do business and what may be sold. Surprisingly, even foreigners
will be allowed to sell their products in the new markets. "Before,
they were tolerating private business. Now, they are encouraging it",
concluded Cho Myong Choi, a North Korean defector who once taught
economics at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. True, these are
initial--and somewhat hesitant--steps on a long path, and Washington
cannot do much to advance North Korea's economic reforms. The North
Koreans will have to do the bulk of the work. At the very least,
though, the United States should not put obstacles in the path of
A policy mix of such carrots and sticks would hardly produce a
perfect outcome. The strategy would, however, trump the alternative
of vainly trying to bribe or pressure Pyongyang to relinquish its
nuclear ambitions, even as evidence mounts to the contrary. And it
certainly beats the reckless option of launching a pre-emptive war.
As is often the case, the best a policy can ultimately accomplish is
less than ideal. What matters instead is that it works.
Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies
at the Cato Institute. He is the co-author of Korean Conundrum: America's
Troubled Relations with North and South Korea, which is forthcoming from