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High Time for Confronting North Korea

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During Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s trip through Asia last week, the North Korean nuclear threat was the major topic of discussion, particularly in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo. In the months preceding the trip, North Korea had raised the stakes in the increasingly tense standoff by officially declaring that it indeed possessed nuclear weapons. In response, Rice put forth the idea of a sanction against North Korea during her rounds through Asian capitals.

The possibility of an international sanction, perhaps even a complete quarantine, of North Korea is an idea whose time has come, the threat of which may be essential for breaking the deadlock.

Despite much talk about a “carrot and stick” approach to North Korea, the discussion among the six powers (North and South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia) has centered on a “carrot-only” policy. In particular, China has pushed the idea of the US providing economic aid and security guarantees first in return for North Korea’s subsequent suspension of its nuclear weapons program.

The Bush administration has rebuffed the idea, as accepting it would amount to nothing more than succumbing to a nuclear blackmail. Since verification of North Korea’s adherence to such a compromise would be neither complete nor irreversible, a “carrot-only” agreement would likely lead to future North Korean provocations to extort more benefits, which is essentially what occurred subsequent to the Clinton administration’s futile 1994 accord with Pyongyang.

Indeed, what is necessary to break the standoff is a “carrot or stick” policy. While national governments can be influenced with offers of incentives, they rarely sacrifice their core interests for future benefits. Tyrannical governments, in particular, respond more readily to prospects of costs to themselves. A policy incorporating both aspects would be even more effective.

North Korea’s increasingly desperate regime reputedly views nuclear weapons, not merely as tools of economic extortion, but more importantly as a security guarantee of its continued existence. Having witnessed the overwhelming superiority of American military forces in Iraq twice, North Korean leaders clearly understand that their vast but obsolete conventional forces are no longer a guarantee of their survival. Hence North Korea’s regime will never give up its nuclear weapons unless the international situation were such that the possession of the weapons is made a greater threat to the regime’s survival than its disarmament.

The Bush administration officials stated repeatedly that time is not on our side. This is true to the extent the continuing deadlock gives more time for North Korea to develop, disperse and harden the weapons. Thus, the status quo is clearly unacceptable. At the same time, military options are both severely limited and highly risky.

Hence the range of options for a “stick” is rather narrow. However, an international sanction and — even better — a complete quarantine of North Korea offer a strategy that is both less aggressive and risky than outright military action but also more likely to be efficacious than the status quo. Furthermore, a regional quarantine would not require the participation of American ground forces that are tied in the Middle East. Uncommitted air and naval assets would suffice.

Presenting North Korea with a “carrot or stick,” i.e. telling North Korea to either accept economic aid and security guarantee in return for a highly intrusive “complete, irreversible and verifiable” disarmament or face a serious consequence of a quarantine, would not been seen in the region as capitulating to nuclear blackmail as in a “carrot-only” policy.

Why would North Korea accept such an ultimatum? Because rejection would mean not only loss of proposed benefits, but also increased stress on the viability of its regime. North Korea barely survives on subsidized oil and food from China and humanitarian aid from Japan and South Korea. North Korean leaders reputedly consider at least two-thirds of their citizens to be either hostile or apathetic to the survival of the regime, a number that is no doubt on the rise. A quarantine that cuts off remaining lifeline of energy and food would add intolerable pressure, making the regime’s survival enormously difficult.

The tricky part of the “carrot or stick” strategy is obtaining cooperation of the other regional powers. Japan’s steadfast cooperation is largely assured, not least because it faces a growing and immediate danger to its own safety from North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Putin’s Russia, which shares a short land border with North Korea, is in a difficult mood since the Ukrainian election, going so far as to continue nuclear cooperation with Iran, but also has less at stake in the region.

South Korea — supposedly a strong ally — with its left-of-center government has been superficially friendly, but substantively uncooperative to the United States. It may require a judicious threat to completely withdraw US forces from South Korea to achieve better cooperation.

China’s help is both vital and hard to obtain. While it is not in China’s interest to have an unstable nuclear North Korea on its border, especially now that its relationship with South Korea is both economically important and friendly, China stands to gain from the US by leveraging its influence on North Korea. To achieve a nuclear weapon-free North Korea, it may become necessary to pay the proverbial “pound of flesh” — both on Taiwan’s independence and Japan’s security role in Asia — to gain China’s full assistance.

The Bush administration is in a position to achieve nuclear disarmament of North Korea, provided that it is willing to suffer the costs of assembling a regional coalition and to confront North Korea with an ultimatum of “carrot or stick.” Whether the administration is willing to engage in such a strategy or not, what it must strenuously avoid is a repeat of what the Clinton administration did — to pass down a major international threat that will be substantially more difficult to resolve for its successor.

James J. Na is a senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute in Seattle and runs the “Guns and Butter Blog.” He can be reached at [email protected]