They All Fall Down

The first step for the countries confronting North Korea is to recognize that their diplomatic strategies haven’t worked.

In the battle of wills between North Korea and the United States, the score is Kim Jong Il, 8; George W. Bush, 0. And yet, the White House doggedly pursues a strategy that has repeatedly failed to achieve American objectives. Despite the overwhelming power of the United States and the abject weakness of North Korea, David has so far bested Goliath with superior strategy and tactics. Its a situation no one should applaud.

When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, North Korea had two bombs worth of plutonium (diverted from Pyongyang in 1990 under the former President Bush). Eight thousand fuel rods with enough plutonium for six bombs resided in cooling ponds, monitored 24 hours a day by International Atomic Energy Agency video cameras. Since 2003, these fuel rods have been reprocessed into six bombs worth of plutonium. The Yongbyon reactor, which was shut down several times in the past, is now churning out enough plutonium for two more bombs a year. With its successful nuclear test, the small, poor, backward Hermit Kingdom has forced its way into the nuclear club.

Countries tempted to cheer, even silently, for Kim Jong Ils besting of the United States should stop and think carefully about the consequences of North Koreas new nuclear status for their own national interests.

First, North Koreas test blows a large hole in the long-standing nonproliferation regime. In addition, it badly dents the hope that the U.N. Security Council can restrain rogue behavior. Kim Jong Il is betting that, for all its barking, the Security Councils bite will be just as toothless as it has been in the past. Kim believes that China and South Korea fear North Koreas collapse more than they fear Pyongyangs nuclear weaponsand he is probably right. What Kim Jong Il and others, including Irans leadership, are learning from this pattern of successful defiance will fuel further challenges to the international system.

Second, as the U.N. High-Level Panel of 2004 warned, North Koreas nuclear test is likely, over time, to trigger an East Asian cascade of proliferation. In the next few weeks, the U.S. government will launch a major initiative to reassure Japan and South Korea about the reliability of Americas nuclear umbrella. Embarrassed by the failure of their own policies, the governments of South Korea and Japan will speak confidently about the United States nuclear deterrent. No need to worry about Kim Jong Ils nuclear threats, they will tell their citizens, the United States would retaliate massively against such an attack.

Quietly, however, Tokyo and Seoul will be examining Plan B: acquiring independent nuclear deterrents. If, despite unambiguous warnings to North Korea, the United States and the world now allow it to develop a nuclear arsenal, Americas ability to deter its use will be in doubt.

A Japanese decision to obtain nuclear weapons would have profound consequences for that countrys domestic politics. Many citizens who remember the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will vigorously oppose the move. But that chorus will likely not be loud enough to prevent the leadership from going nuclear. My best bet is that during the next 10 years, both Japan and South Korea will arm themselves with nuclear weaponsundermining the security and stability that has been the foundation of East Asias extraordinary economic growth.

Most importantly, North Koreas test increases the risk that terrorists will explode a nuclear weapon in an American city. About al Qaedas motivation to launch a nuclear 9/11, there is no doubt. So far, the terrorist group has been unable to acquire the means to realize its deadliest ambitions. But North Korea is the only state whose leader could plausibly conclude that selling a nuclear weapon to Osama bin Laden would advance his interests. And North Korea is a proven blackmarketeer. As President Bushs statement the day after North Koreas test emphasized, North Korea is one of the worlds leading proliferators of missile technology, including transfers to Iran and Syria. Despite the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative that seeks to prevent North Korean exports, Pyongyang reportedly delivered 18 missiles last year to Iran. North Korea is already Missiles-R-Us. Why shouldnt it become Nukes-R-Us?

The six-party governments are, at this point, in various stages of denial. Acting almost on reflex, each is calling for a return to the policy it pursued before North Koreas test. The United States is urging China and South Korea to enforce sanctionswithout grasping that neither will squeeze North Korea to a point that threatens regime collapse and that lesser sanctions will impose costs Kim can afford to pay. For its part, China calls for a return to the six-party talks and the search for a diplomatic solution, without acknowledging that the test exposed the six-party talks as little more than a hollow process that provided North Korea time to quadruple its plutonium stock.

The United States, China, and Japan must now engage collectively in a major strategic reassessment. The starting point must be an unblinking recognition that the strategy each has pursued to this point has failed and that the options available now are fewer and less palatable than they imagine. The best outcome is that international pressure will lead Pyongyang to freeze its program and then, slowly, reverse direction. At that point, a slow, step-by-step process could begin in which interested states provide benefits in return for the dismantling of North Koreas nuclear weapons program.

China is the only actor with the leverage to make it happen. When Beijing interrupted the flow of oil to Pyongyang in March 2003for technical reasonsNorth Koreas response was swift and compliant. But China will not undertake this mission voluntarily. Indeed, President Hu Jintao will contemplate it only if the United States makes the issue the test of the bilateral relationship. President Bush will have to squelch his desire for regime change and focus only on stopping North Koreas nuclear program. The United States will need to endorse Chinese-led assurances that North Korea will not be attacked as long as it observes agreed-upon constraints on the export and further production of nuclear materials and begins eliminating its arsenal.

Finally, against the real danger that North Korea will sell a nuclear weapon to Osama bin Laden or others, the United States and its allies should announce a new policy of nuclear accountability. Kim Jong Il must be put on notice that the explosion of any nuclear weapon or material of North Korean origin on the territory of the United States or its allies will be treated just like a North Korean nuclear attack and will be met by a full retaliatory response that guarantees that this could never happen again.