April 11, 2003 | Commentary on Asia
North Korea on the Boil
American soldiers moving at will throughout Baghdad. Jubilant
Iraqis cheering them. Images of Saddam Hussein burned, defaced and
jeered. Could North Korea have picked a better time to officially
withdraw from the U.N.'s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?
Yes, on the very day our troops pulled Saddam's statue off its
pedestal, North Korea pulled out of the agreement, ending its
three-month warning period and unbridling itself from international
restraints on its nuclear weapons ambitions. Which means the
country many war critics said represents a bigger threat than Iraq
may soon have the ultimate weapon.
Last year, Pyongyang broke four international agreements and
declared its intention to join the ranks of countries armed with
nuclear weapons. In the interim, it reopened frozen nuclear-weapons
facilities and took steps to reinvigorate its nuclear-weapons
So what did the U.N. Security Council do when it met April 9 to
consider the matter? Nothing. Under pressure from China and Russia,
the Council refused to condemn North Korea's outlaw behavior.
That's unfortunate, because seeing the bomb in the hands of this
reclusive, paranoid, aggressive regime in some ways makes dealing
with Saddam look like child's play. North Korea has chemical and
biological weapons and
an army of more than 1 million men.
It has 10,000 artillery pieces trained on the South Korean capital
of Seoul, 25 miles south of the demilitarized zone and home to 35
million people in its metropolitan area.
A nuclear-armed North Korea would shift the balance of power in
Northeast Asia and encourage others, such as South Korea and Japan,
to pursue the bomb. It also would increase the risk that nuclear
weapons will spread to al Qaeda and other terrorists -- a troubling
prospect, to say the least.
In the absence of any U.N. leadership, America must address North
Korea's nuclear breakout. It's clear that Washington will need to
bring other nations to the table, including China, Russia, Japan
and South Korea, to negotiate with North Korea. So far, the Bush
administration is rightfully sticking with its principled policy of
seeking a multi-nation, or "multilateral," diplomatic
Some, including Russia and China, want the Bush administration to
open immediate, direct talks with the North Koreans, which
certainly would please Pyongyang. This may be a quick answer to
North Korean provocations such as missile firings and the hostile
intercept of American reconnaissance aircraft, but in the long run
it will prove ineffective.
Indeed, Russia and China likely want us to deal with the ornery
North Koreans so they can reap the benefits of our labor. Moscow
and Beijing weren't much help with Iraq. Yet they will benefit from
Coalition successes in disarming Saddam and liberating Iraq. The
same model seems to apply here.
There are good reasons not to jump headlong into "bilateral"
negotiations with North Korea and for dealing with Pyongyang in the
company of other regional players. First, it would reward bad
behavior and encourage other rogue regimes to do the same.
Second, Pyongyang's nuclear breakout is a regional issue, not a
bilateral one. North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons would
deeply affect the interests of China, Japan, Russia and South Korea
-- not just America. All those nations must help resolve this
issue. Russia and China historically have exercised a great deal of
influence with North Korea, and they must do their share in
steering North Korea clear of its nuclear entanglements. Indeed,
the only advice or pressure that the North may heed likely would
come from Moscow or Beijing.
Third, once an accord addressing North Korea's nuclear problem is
inked, the United States will need other regional nations to help
verify that Pyongyang is complying with it. North Korea already has
been caught red-handed once cheating on its agreement to stay free
of nuclear weapons. We can't let it happen again.
The U.N. Security Council can redeem itself by calling upon North
Korea to rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, halt work at
its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and dismantle its clandestine
program to create highly enriched uranium. If North Korea continues
to seek nuclear weapons, the United Nations also could consider
more muscular options, such as sanctions. But again, sanctions
don't work without everyone playing along.
It will take time and regional cooperation to address the security
issues on the Korean peninsula. That's why President Bush is right
to develop a multinational diplomatic framework. The only effective
way to peacefully -- and permanently -- end North Korea's dangerous
game of brinksmanship and blackmail is to meet it head on with a
united diplomatic offensive.
-Peter Brookes, a
former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and
Pacific affairs, is director of the Asian Studies Center at The
Distributed nationally on the Scripps Howard wire