High Time for Confronting North Korea
During Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice's trip through Asia last week, the North Korean nuclear threat
was the major topic of discussion, particularly in Beijing, Seoul
and Tokyo. In the months preceding the trip, North Korea had raised
the stakes in the increasingly tense standoff by officially declaring
that it indeed possessed nuclear weapons. In response, Rice put
forth the idea of a sanction against North Korea during her rounds
through Asian capitals.
The possibility of an international sanction, perhaps even a complete
quarantine, of North Korea is an idea whose time has come, the
threat of which may be essential for breaking the deadlock.
Despite much talk about a "carrot and stick" approach
to North Korea, the discussion among the six powers (North and
South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia) has centered on
a "carrot-only" policy. In particular, China has pushed
the idea of the US providing economic aid and security guarantees
first in return for North Korea's subsequent suspension of its
nuclear weapons program.
The Bush administration has rebuffed the idea, as accepting it
would amount to nothing more than succumbing to a nuclear blackmail.
Since verification of North Korea's adherence to such a compromise
would be neither complete nor irreversible, a "carrot-only"
agreement would likely lead to future North Korean provocations
to extort more benefits, which is essentially what occurred subsequent
to the Clinton administration's futile 1994 accord with Pyongyang.
Indeed, what is necessary to break the standoff is a "carrot
or stick" policy. While national governments can be influenced
with offers of incentives, they rarely sacrifice their core interests
for future benefits. Tyrannical governments, in particular, respond
more readily to prospects of costs to themselves. A policy incorporating
both aspects would be even more effective.
North Korea's increasingly desperate regime reputedly views nuclear
weapons, not merely as tools of economic extortion, but more importantly
as a security guarantee of its continued existence. Having witnessed
the overwhelming superiority of American military forces in Iraq
twice, North Korean leaders clearly understand that their vast
but obsolete conventional forces are no longer a guarantee of
their survival. Hence North Korea's regime will never give up
its nuclear weapons unless the international situation were such
that the possession of the weapons is made a greater threat to
the regime's survival than its disarmament.
The Bush administration officials stated repeatedly that time
is not on our side. This is true to the extent the continuing
deadlock gives more time for North Korea to develop, disperse
and harden the weapons. Thus, the status quo is clearly unacceptable.
At the same time, military options are both severely limited and
Hence the range of options for a "stick" is rather narrow.
However, an international sanction and -- even better -- a complete
quarantine of North Korea offer a strategy that is both less aggressive
and risky than outright military action but also more likely to
be efficacious than the status quo. Furthermore, a regional quarantine
would not require the participation of American ground forces
that are tied in the Middle East. Uncommitted air and naval assets
Presenting North Korea with a "carrot or stick," i.e.
telling North Korea to either accept economic aid and security
guarantee in return for a highly intrusive "complete, irreversible
and verifiable" disarmament or face a serious consequence
of a quarantine, would not been seen in the region as capitulating
to nuclear blackmail as in a "carrot-only" policy.
Why would North Korea accept such an ultimatum? Because rejection
would mean not only loss of proposed benefits, but also increased
stress on the viability of its regime. North Korea barely survives
on subsidized oil and food from China and humanitarian aid from
Japan and South Korea. North Korean leaders reputedly consider
at least two-thirds of their citizens to be either hostile or
apathetic to the survival of the regime, a number that is no doubt
on the rise. A quarantine that cuts off remaining lifeline of
energy and food would add intolerable pressure, making the regime's
survival enormously difficult.
The tricky part of the "carrot or stick" strategy is
obtaining cooperation of the other regional powers. Japan's steadfast
cooperation is largely assured, not least because it faces a growing
and immediate danger to its own safety from North Korea's nuclear
and ballistic missile programs. Putin's Russia, which shares a
short land border with North Korea, is in a difficult mood since
the Ukrainian election, going so far as to continue nuclear cooperation
with Iran, but also has less at stake in the region.
South Korea -- supposedly a strong ally -- with its left-of-center
government has been superficially friendly, but substantively
uncooperative to the United States. It may require a judicious
threat to completely withdraw US forces from South Korea to achieve
China's help is both vital and hard to obtain. While it is not
in China's interest to have an unstable nuclear North Korea on
its border, especially now that its relationship with South Korea
is both economically important and friendly, China stands to gain
from the US by leveraging its influence on North Korea. To achieve
a nuclear weapon-free North Korea, it may become necessary to
pay the proverbial "pound of flesh" -- both on Taiwan's
independence and Japan's security role in Asia -- to gain China's
The Bush administration is in a position to achieve nuclear disarmament
of North Korea, provided that it is willing to suffer the costs
of assembling a regional coalition and to confront North Korea
with an ultimatum of "carrot or stick." Whether the
administration is willing to engage in such a strategy or not,
what it must strenuously avoid is a repeat of what the Clinton
administration did -- to pass down a major international threat
that will be substantially more difficult to resolve for its successor.
J. Na is a senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery
Institute in Seattle and runs the "Guns
and Butter Blog." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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