Our Game with North Korea
For the world generally, few possibilities can be more frightening than that North Korea will succeed in developing nuclear weapons. Possession of such an arsenal will certainly accelerate the existing arms race in Asia, tipping the balance in favor of similar initiatives in South Korea and, most importantly, Japan. That is worrying enough; but matters would not end there. Pyongyang is a crucial node in the international network of proliferation that already includes China and Russia as primary providers, Pakistan and North Korea as active disseminators, and Iran and perhaps Saudi Arabia among the final consumers. No less unsettling is the prospect that North Korea will sell nuclear weapons to international terrorist groups.
Clearly this is an issue of profound concern to the United States—though not, it must be added, one that we can resolve on our own, or for which credible military options exist. Actual strikes against North Korea pose a real danger of unleashing a second Korean war in which tens of millions might die. But diplomatic approaches are no more promising: people who know North Korea do not believe that state will ever give up its nuclear weapons, no matter who asks or who threatens. If no good solutions exist to these problems, there are nevertheless mistakes that can be avoided and ways to make even a fragile peace more likely. Unfortunately, the trend of American diplomacy since the end of last summer shows signs of veering in the wrong direction. Even as talks with Pyongyang were collapsing amid recriminations, the President assured us that a peaceful negotiated solution was possible and perhaps even not all that difficult. When North Korea threatened a nuclear test, Colin Powell noted, “They’ve said things like that before.” Whatever may account for such inappropriate-seeming nonchalance, there is now a detectable shift in U.S. policy away from our initial demands for North Korea’s actual disarmament toward the possible acceptance of something less.
About the Author
Arthur Waldron is the Lauder professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, D.C.