Nuking Our Strategy Toward North Korea

North Korea has declared that it has nuclear weapons, a capability that U.S. intelligence agencies had suspected for some time. President Bush is known to have a personal distaste for Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s quirky ruler, and his abysmal human rights record. Although regime change in the north is not a publicly stated U.S. goal, the president’s ever idealistic approach is to ratchet up the pain in an attempt to squeeze the life out of Kim’s tyrannical regime. Although this approach may seem plausible, it’s counterproductive.

Because the Bush administration has no leverage over North Korea and no effective military alternatives–”North Korean nuclear facilities are hidden and deeply buried, and both Seoul and Japan are vulnerable to North Korean retaliatory strikes in the event of a U.S. attack–”it is concentrating on tracking and freezing financial transactions related to North Korea’s counterfeiting, drug running and covert weapons sales. Yet such sanctions have rarely been successful, as the ineffective financial war against Al Qaeda should indicate. Governments have never been effective in ending these rampant clandestine activities. In fact, the international economic isolation of North Korea drives its government to turn to such illicit ways of raising revenue.

Because military and economic coercion are not likely to sway this Stalinist holdover, perhaps a fresh counterintuitive approach is needed: empathy. After the neo-conservatives finish screaming about appeasing the human rights monsters in North Korea, a cooler, more rational analysis might discover that a more empathetic U.S. policy would produce better results than threats and coercion.

The North Korean government may be an evil, despotic regime with nuclear weapons, but the United States has faced much more formidable foes of this genre: the Soviet Union and radical Maoist China. Furthermore, North Korea is a faraway land that would have no intrinsic gripe with the United States if the U.S. military had not thrown up a containment wall around the peninsular nation. The many U.S. military bases and alliances in East Asia mean that the United States is in North Korea’s face, not vice versa. Thus the North Korean regime, despite its deplorable human rights record, does have legitimate security concerns.

Even without such bases and alliances, the United States, with thousands of warheads in the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal, should be able to deter a nuclear attack from the few primitive warheads in North Korea’s nuclear stockpile. (Of course, this presumes that North Korea will eventually perfect a missile that could carry a heavy nuclear payload to the continental United States.)

Some have raised the specter of North Korea giving or selling nuclear weapons to terrorists. Yet this threat is overblown. North Korea has not been an active supporter of terrorists for decades, and only politics keep it on the U.S. list of countries sponsoring terrorism. North Korea, desperate for revenue, would not give terrorists the nuclear weapons that cost so much to develop and produce. And although North Korea has sold weapons to other autocratic nations, it would be much riskier to sell a nuclear device to an unpredictable terrorist group, such as Al Qaeda. If a nuclear weapon were used against the United States by terrorists who then melted back into the population, and the sale of the device were traced back to North Korea, enormous pressure would build on the U.S. government to use nuclear weapons against the only party with an identifiable home address.

If the threat of North Korea supplying terrorists with nuclear weapons is exaggerated and small North Korean nuclear strikes against the United States can be deterred by the threat of overwhelming retaliation from the globally dominant U.S. nuclear arsenal, perhaps there is room for negotiation with Kim.

The economic isolation of the north and perpetual U.S. saber rattling make a paranoid North Korean regime even more likely to build up its nuclear stockpile. Instead of economic and military coercion, the United States should take the more positive approach of offering an end to economic sanctions and a non-aggression treaty in exchange for a verifiable elimination–”not freeze–”of the North Korean nuclear program.

Recently, a similar approach succeeded in dismantling the nuclear program of another “rogue” state. The promise of reintegration into the world economy played a big role in getting Libya to give up its nuclear program.

Even so, because of past U.S. threats, the suspicious Kim might not accept this trade. In that case, the United States may just have to accept that some unfriendly, autocratic minor powers may get nuclear weapons. It won’t be the end of the world.