April 11, 2003

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 program.

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 solution.

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 Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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