To understand the significance of North Korea’s latest nuclear test, you have to start with this fact: It was nearly 20 years ago that the United States irrevocably decided to let North Korea have nuclear weapons. President Clinton knew back in 1994 that if he didn’t bomb the Yongbyon reactor before North Korea was done removing plutonium-laden spent-fuel rods from the reactor core, that there would be no way to stop North Korea from getting nuclear weapons. He knew that if Iran and other countries saw our inaction in the face of North Korea’s mad dash towards nukes, they would feel an overwhelming incentive to develop nukes of their own. He knew that nuclear proliferation might spiral out of control and that the 21st century might turn into a nightmare world of nuclear terrorism.
He knew all of that, and still he did nothing, supposedly because of the threat that North Korea’s 12,000 rockets posed to the civilian population of Seoul, and to our own foolishly forward-deployed forces there. Instead, Clinton decided that it would be better to accept the long-term risk of nuclear proliferation spinning out of control on someone else’s watch, than to accept the vanishingly small short-term risk that North Korea would respond to the bombing of a single building in the middle of nowhere by launching a suicidal war against both South Korea and the United States. He thereby established the precedent that America can be bluffed and pushed around by any third-rate dictatorship with a nuclear program and nothing to lose. That’s the world we’re living in today.
So, having long ago decided to let North Korea have nuclear weapons, there’s nothing for it but to hope that the regime fades away in a peaceful transition to a democratic non-nuclear state, while making sure that North Korea doesn’t get anything out of its nuclear weapons in the meantime. We have to have a credible deterrent threat against North Korea’s using nuclear weapons, that goes without saying, but we should have a similarly credible deterrent against North Korea transferring any nuclear material or know-how to other regimes or non-state actors — and right now, we don’t. That’s another thing to worry about.
For right now, the vital thing is to make sure that North Korea fails to extract any political or economic benefit through nuclear blackmail. I’m all for U.N. Security Council sanctions, but matching North Korea’s big show with a big show of our own is just embarrassing. We should adamantly refuse to get tricked into another round of concessions, like we did after North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test, when we agreed (along with Russia, China, and South Korea) to send them 100 million tons of fuel oil, if they promised to please, pretty please, not scare us again.
The six-party framework (Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and the U.S.) can only be valuable if it becomes the gatekeeper for all the political and economic concessions to North Korea. Unfortunately, neither we nor our partners are willing to hold humanitarian aid hostage to progress in the nuclear talks and risk another major famine — except maybe Japan, which hates North Korea, and Russia, which really couldn’t care less about the whole thing.
Therefore, Chuck Hagel’s brilliant strategic insights notwithstanding, the six-party framework is dead. We should bury it, pending the inevitable demise of the regime in Pyongyang. And here’s a good piece of advice in the meantime: Whenever North Korea tries to get your attention, ignore it.
— Mario Loyola is a former counsel for foreign and defense affairs to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.