North Korean Threat Spirals Toward Disaster

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by Alan D. Romberg and Michael D. Swaine
Originally published in the International Herald Tribune on March 27, 2003.

A Greater Danger

WASHINGTON  While the world’s attention is riveted on Iraq, the United States cannot afford to ignore another brewing crisis with potentially even greater consequences.  The Bush administration’s approach to North Korea is quickly moving from the inexplicable to the irresponsible.  If it continues on the current course, America could soon find itself confronted with the unpalatable choice between a nuclear-armed North Korea and war.

Washington is confusing the reality that this is an international problem with the practicality that the initial impetus toward resolution must come in the form of a US-North Korean dialogue.  This confusion can only be understood in terms of President George W. Bush’s personal animus toward the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, and Bush’s willingness to follow the lead of those who seek not a solution but North Korea’s collapse.

Pyongyang’s decision to develop nuclear weapons by alternative means was taken years before this administration assumed office and responsibility for this deceit lies squarely with the North.  But the recent spiraling crisis also has a lot to do with Bush’s deeply flawed North Korea policy since he took office and with the US refusal to talk directly with the North since October.

While the State Department searches fruitlessly for a way to overcome the North’s objections and open multilateral discussions with Pyongyang, others in the administration argue over how best to compel the North to abandon its nuclear program, believing that Pyongyang is vulnerable to pressure and that, in the end, this will contribute to the only reliable solution: regime change.  Meanwhile, Pyongyang continues to raise the stakes.

We do not know whether Pyongyang is committed to building a nuclear weapons capability regardless of any security assurances from Washington or if-as it says-it would give up its nuclear ambitions in return for such assurances.  But if Washington is unwilling to speak directly with Pyongyang to find out which is true-and is also unwilling to tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea-then the current crisis is likely to worsen over the next several weeks as Pyongyang continues to ratchet up the pressure for bilateral talks through increasingly provocative nuclear-related activities or by breaking its moratorium on long-range missile launches.

Such further escalation could significantly increase pressure within the administration for threats of a preemptive strike, either to compel China, South Korea, Russia and Japan to support economic sanctions and interdiction of North Korean military exports as a less onerous alternative, or as a supposedly viable military means of preventing Pyongyang from creating significant amounts of nuclear weapons or exportable nuclear weapons-grade material.

Such approaches assume that North Korea will eventually retreat rather than risk annihilation.  This is a very dangerous assumption.  Either preemptively or as a first response to a US strike, the North could well decide to launch its own strike against US forces or facilities in South Korea, hoping to split the US-South Korean alliance and mobilize world opinion against any further escalation on the part of the United States.  Even if only part of this came to pass-splitting the US-South Korean alliance, for example-the consequences for US regional security interests would be immeasurable.

Maybe the North is determined to continue on the nuclear path, and maybe some of these consequences cannot be avoided. But rather than risk them needlessly, it makes more sense for Washington to find out by opening talks with North Korea-soon.

The administration seems to resist talking with the North precisely because the North demands to talk with it.  This is self-defeating.  Is the administration so insecure that it thinks sitting with the North will suddenly make it Pyongyang’s puppet?  Or does it somehow equate sitting at the table with surrendering to the North’s substantive demands?

Surely North Korea would be pleased it had brought the mighty United States to the table, but it would have no illusions about who was the strong power and who the weak.  Moreover, the exercise of American leadership by showing pragmatic flexibility-not weakness-would earn respect rather than disdain from others.  And if harsher measures were later needed, a foundation would have been laid, with international support made more likely.

The administration is right that this is an international problem, and in the end it requires participation and commitment from many countries.  But the situation could explode out of control if Washington doesn’t demonstrate leadership.

Alan D. Romberg is a Senior Associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center.  Michael D. Swaine is Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-director of its China program.


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