Politics & Policy

Pyongyang Boiling

The next WMD threat.

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. It has already reopened frozen nuclear-weapons facilities and took steps to reinvigorate its nuclear-weapons program.

Yet when the U.N. Security Council on April 9 to consider the matter, it did nothing. Under pressure from China and Russia, the council refused to condemn North Korea’s outlaw behavior.

That’s unfortunate: The bomb in the hands of this reclusive, paranoid, aggressive regime is a problem that makes dealing with Saddam look like child’s play. North Korea already has chemical and biological weapons and an army of more than 1 million men. It has 10,000 artillery pieces trained on South Korea’s capital, Seoul, just 25 miles south of the demilitarized zone — a metro area of some 35 million people.

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 al Qaeda and other terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weapons.

In the absence of any U.N. leadership, America must address North Korea’s nuclear breakout. Until recently, Pyongyang was insisting that it would agree only to immediate, direct talks with Washington. But North Korean officials have dropped this demand. That opens the door for the Bush administration’s multi-nation, or “multilateral,” diplomatic solution, enabling us to bring other nations, including China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, to the negotiating table with North Korea.

Surprisingly, that may not be what these other nations want to hear. Both Russia and China, for example, have urged the Bush administration to open direct talks. But while one-on-one negotiations may be a quick answer to North Korean provocations such as missile firings and the hostile intercept of American reconnaissance aircraft, in the long run they would prove ineffective.

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 damage the interests of China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea — not just America. All those nations should 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 shouldn’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.


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