One Reader's Perspective:Confronting a Nuclear Hermit

January 15, 2003

One Reader's Perspective:Confronting a Nuclear Hermit

The Bush Administration should pursue a dual-phased strategy with North Korea.

The Bush Administration should pursue a dual-phased strategy with North Korea. It should first seek a "grand bargain" with Pyongyang that would alleviate the most threatening dimensions of the Korea problem. If this effort fails, the United States should adapt a diplomatic policy designed to contain North Korea, backstopped by sufficient military force to deter any belligerent behavior, and supplemented by efforts to achieve limited agreements with the North on specific issues.

In theory, the United States could pursue four broad policy options toward a nuclear-armed North Korea. First, it could launch a preemptive military campaign against Pyongyang. Second, the United States and North Korea could pursue a comprehensive settlement of their differences. Third, the two governments could negotiate issue-by-issue, seeking limited agreements on important and tractable problems through reciprocal concessions while deferring resolution of their remaining differences until more propitious times. Fourth, Washington could adopt a policy of containing North Korea until the regime mellows, cracks, or otherwise disappears.

The military option is least desirable because of the high risks it entails. The United States might be able to destroy North Korea's nuclear assets through air strikes, commando raids, and other measures, but the use of force entails the unacceptable risk of escalating into a conventional war on the Korean peninsula, where 37,000 U.S. troops are now stationed. Although the U.S. military would undoubtedly win such a conflict, much of South Korea would be destroyed in the process, and the shock to East Asia's already precarious economies could prove devastating.

A comprehensive settlement would represent the optimal resolution of the protracted confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang. Such a "grand bargain" might include Pyongyang's halting its nuclear and missile programs, Washington's removing North Korea from its list of terrorist-supporting states and increasing U.S. financial assistance, and the mutual exchange of ambassadors and security guarantees. Monitoring these provisions, especially the North's missile exports and nuclear activities, would require extensive and intrusive verification.

By pursuing a comprehensive settlement, the Bush Administration could test whether Pyongyang is manufacturing a crisis merely to gain Washington's attention and induce it into serious dialogue. Unfortunately, North Korea's leaders already have rejected the grand bargain option when visiting former Secretary of Defense William Perry offered it in May 1999, and its prospects have only worsened since then. In particular, Pyongyang's recent expulsion of international monitors from its nuclear facilities would call into question the durability of any verification procedures that the North might accept.

If American and North Korean representatives cannot achieve a comprehensive settlement, and Pyongyang continues to build a nuclear arsenal, the administration should adapt a strategy combining the third and fourth options. On the one hand, the Bush Administration should pursue a long-term strategy of containing the North until its degenerate system collapses under the weight of external and internal pressures. In terms of military power, the United States will need to continue to deploy ground troops in South Korea, as well as forces in Japan and other East Asian countries, capable of rapidly halting any North Korean invasion.

Unfortunately, North Korea's transformation might be a protracted process, and South Korea, Japan, and other countries would resist a purely confrontational approach toward Pyongyang. The administration therefore will need to evince a willingness to talk with North Korea and pursue limited negotiations on selected issues. What the United States would want to achieve from such talks is clear: limitations on North Korean missile testing and exports, reductions in the size of its conventional forces, and the cessation of its nuclear weapons program. What the North would require for progress in these areas is uncertain, but security guarantees likely will head the list. Fortunately, some agreements in these areas would not depend on cooperative verification procedures because U.S. intelligence possesses sufficient assets to confirm compliance. In addition, the mere continuation of talks would provide benefits to U.S. diplomacy even in the absence of concrete agreements.

The essential goal of both containment and negotiations would be to constrain North Korea's ballistic missile development program. The most important way to minimize the adverse military consequences of a small North Korean nuclear arsenal is to limit its range of effectiveness. North Korea probably has possessed a few nuclear devices for the past decade, but it cannot exploit them fully as weapons until it develops ICBMs capable of reaching the United States.

An effective missile defense would be an ideal solution to negate North Korea's missile program, but such a system will take years to develop. Instead, concerted multilateral diplomacy will provide the most effective means to manage the problem. First, the United States will need other countries' support to impede North Korea's efforts to import materials, people, and knowledge that could further its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. It also will require multinational assistance to limit North Korean missile sales and, above all, thwart its exporting nuclear weapons and their means of production and delivery. Rather than seeking broad economic sanctions, which would be unattainable given the absence of international support for them, the administration should focus on those measures that would best impede Pyongyang's nuclear and missile development programs.

Second, the United States will need to reassure North Korea's neighbors that they can live, tolerably if not comfortably, with a nuclear-armed hermit. Making clear Washington's determination both to uphold its alliance commitments in East Asia and to engage in continued though constrained communications with Pyongyang should provide the appropriate amalgam to achieve multinational backing for American policies.

Washington has a good chance of obtaining such foreign support. Although rejecting a strictly confrontational strategy, South Korea's departing and future presidents have endorsed the U.S. goal of averting a nuclear-armed North Korea with long-range missiles. Japan has previously suspended economic assistance to North Korea in response to missile tests and other rogue behavior. Even Russia and China have sought to curb North Korea's nuclear and missile programs because they galvanize U.S. plans for missile defense and, especially worrisome for Beijing, promote military cooperation among the United States, Japan, and Taiwan.

In the end, eliminating the threat North Korea presents to the international community requires transforming its government into a less aggressive, more democratic regime. A long-term effort at transmutation would in the short-term improve the lives of its citizens, and in the long-term would increase the chances of Korea's peaceful reunification. The strategy successfully employed by successive U.S. administrations during the Cold War with the Soviet Union could succeed here: containing the immediate military threat through diplomacy and military preparedness, while seeking to undermine the regime by exploiting its economic weaknesses and exposing it to the efficacious solvent of democratic ideas.

Dr. Richard Weitz is currently a consultant to the Department of Defense. He worked on political-military issues in the Pentagon during the mid-1990s.