When Jimmy Carter, after concluding several hours of discussions in Pyongyang with North Korea's Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, declared that "the crisis is over" on the Korean peninsula, a sigh of relief could be heard around the world. It appeared as if the drift toward a diplomatic and economic confrontation, and possibly even a military conflict, had been averted. If Carter was right, and no one could say with certainty that he was wrong, the stage had been set for a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear challenge.
Pyongyang subsequently agreed to permit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to remain in North Korea to verify its commitment not to reprocess the fuel rods that it had recently extracted from its reactor (which would have given it the capacity to make five or six nuclear weapons by the end of the year), and to refrain from reloading its only operational reactor while negotiations were underway with the United States; and this, too, put wind in the sails of the optimists. So did the setting of dates for a third round of negotiations with Washington in July and the first summit ever between the leaders of the two Koreas in August.
Then Kim Il Sung died. (The Great Leader's fuel rods were finally spent.) In Pyongyang, nothing was clear. The struggle for succession, if such a struggle is taking place, is obscure; and the likely successor, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, the son of the Great Leader, is even more obscure. It is hard, of course, to make foreign policy in circumstances so uncertain; but it would be a great blunder for American policymakers to allow gossip from Pyong-yang and diplomatic politesse to interfere with the historical and strategic understanding of the North Korean problem. Idle speculation about the succession, or even informed speculation, matters less than the words and the actions of North Korea at the negotiating table in Geneva and at the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon.
This problem has a past and a logic. Pyongyang has persistently prevaricated on the nuclear issue.Over the years it has consistently said one thing and done another. It signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but refused to carry it out. It agreed to let the IAEA inspect its nuclear facilities but interfered with the IAEA's efforts to do so. It entered into an agreement with South Korea obligating it to dismantle its reprocessing plant but blithely ignored the pact.
My own experience in North Korea suggests that its commitments have about the same value as Tsarist war bonds. In 1980, when I met Kim Il Sung for the first time, he told me that he favored ameliorating the human consequences of the division of Korea by permitting family visitations, the exchange of correspondence and trade between the peoples on both sides of the thirty-eighth parallel. More than a decade later virtually none of these reforms has taken place. In 1991, when I met him for the second time, the Great Leader assured me that he had no interest in obtaining nuclear weapons, and that North Korea was not attempting to construct a reprocessing facility, in spite of the fact that there was incontrovertible evidence the country was doing both.
Now, despite its promise to "freeze" its nuclear program while talks are underway with the United States, North Korea continues work on a 200 megawatt reactor, which will give it the capacity to produce enough fissile material for ten or more atom bombs per year when it is completed in 1996. It is also still constructing a "second line" in its reprocessing plant, which will enable it to produce additional nuclear weapons more rapidly should it decide to resume reprocessing in the future. What is needed now, in short, is not wishful thinking but hardheaded analysis.
Such an analysis must begin with a recognition of the fact that the North Korean nuclear project constitutes the most serious threat to the preservation of regional peace and global nonproliferation in the world today. An unconstrained North Korean nuclear program would give Pyongyang the ability to produce and to stockpile dozens, and eventually hundreds, of nuclear weapons. Far from being over, the crisis may soon be upon us. In the absence of a verifiable agreement bringing its nuclear weapons project to an end, the North Koreans will be in a position to make up to fifteen atom bombs per year by 1996, and could easily have more than fifty by the end of the century.
An atomic arsenal of this magnitude would have a number of dangerous and destabilizing consequences.
It would increase the risks of another conventional war on the Korean peninsula. Should it decide once again to attempt to reunify Korea under Communist control, or should it decide to break, by military means, the international community's efforts to thwart its nuclear program, Pyongyang would have enormous leverage to end the fighting on its terms, which might encourage it to begin the fighting in the first place.
It would increase the prospects for a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia by putting pressure on Japan and South Korea, the countries most immediately threatened by North Korea's nuclear potential, to join the nuclear club themselves.
It would increase the chances that Japan, for the third time, and South Korea, for the first time, will become victims of a nuclear attack.
It would increase the possibilities of nuclear proliferation by giving North Korea the capacity to earn desperately needed foreign exchange by selling its fissile material, and even off-the-rack nuclear weapons, to whoever is able to buy them.
It is likely that the first three of these potential consequences could be averted by the realities of America's conventional military power and nuclear deterrent. North Korea has no interest, after all, in inviting its own destruction by launching another conventional war against South Korea or a nuclear attack against Japan; and so long as the United States credibly reaffirms its determination to consider a nuclear strike against South Korea or Japan the equivalent of a nuclear attack against itself, our allies would most probably continue to refrain from joining the nuclear club. For this reason, some have dismissed concerns about North Korea's nuclear program on the grounds that, just as we prevented the Soviet Union and China from using their nuclear weapons through a policy of containment and deterrence, we can prevent Pyongyang from launching its nuclear weapons as well.
But this rather sanguine assessment overlooks the real problem, which is that Pyongyang is more likely to sell its nuclear weapons than use them. If this were to happen, and with an unconstrained North Korean nuclear program it surely will, it would dash whatever hopes still exist for a truly effective and global nonproliferation regime. The Hermit Kingdom, remember, has consistently demonstrated its indifference to established norms of national behavior. Among its more notable exercises in international terrorism were its efforts in the 1980s to assassinate the entire South Korean Cabinet during the course of an official visit to Rangoon, the blowing up of a South Korean civilian airliner over the Andaman Sea and the abduction of a leading South Korean actress to satisfy the cinematic appetites of Kim Jong Il. Its record of selling intermediate-range missiles to Iraq, Syria, Libya and Iran leaves little doubt that it will provide fissile material and nuclear weapons to whatever rogue regimes and terrorist groups are prepared to pay the market price.
It is one thing to describe the threat. It is quite another to figure out how to deal with it. The Clinton administration has three options: diplomacy, sanctions and force. With the moment of truth fast approaching, it is important to consider each of these options, and for the United States and its Asian allies to determine not only what they want from North Korea, but what they are prepared to do in order to get it. Obviously, the best way to resolve the problem would be through a negotiated agreement in which Pyongyang undertook to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Such a settlement would entail North Korea dismantling its reprocessing facility, stopping any further work on its 200 megawatt reactor, relinquishing all the fissile material it has already produced, including its recently discharged spent fuel, and accepting "special inspections" by the IAEA. Without the latter, which would entitle the IAEA to inspect not just Pyongyang's declared facilities but also any location where it has reason to suspect that prohibited activities may be taking place, it would be impossible to preclude the possibility that, like Iraq before the Gulf war, North Korea had a clandestine program or arsenal. North Korea, after all, has a long history of building large-scale munitions factories underground, as it did during the Korean War, and tunnels under the demilitarized zone, as it did in the years after.
Such a settlement will require the United States and its Asian allies to be clear about what they would be willing to give North Korea in exchange for such commitments. In the discussions that preceded the recent meeting in Geneva, we said only that we would talk about the normalization of our relationship with Pyongyang if it agreed to our demands, and refrained from spelling out what we would be willing to do for North Korea if it abandons its nuclear project. A purely diplomatic strategy entails making North Korea an offer it can't refuse. (There is always the chance that Pyongyang, which has spoken from time to time about a "package deal," might accept it.) And so we should offer North Korea full diplomatic relations; a no-first-use pledge about the use of nuclear weapons; and whatever economic assistance it needs for its legitimate energy requirements, including, if necessary, a light water nuclear reactor. Japan and some of the other OECD countries would join in providing the resources for the construction of such a facility.
An offer of this magnitude would be a relatively small price to pay for the termination of North Korea's nuclear enterprise. Actually, all things being equal, the establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea is in our interest as much as it is North Korea's, given the desirability of exposing Pyongyang as much as possible to the realities of the changing world situation. During the 1980s, when Beijing and Moscow had as little to do with Seoul as Washington and Tokyo had to do with Pyongyang, we pursued a policy of "cross recognition," in which the United States and Japan promised to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea if China and the Soviet Union established them with South Korea. Now that Moscow and Beijing have embassies in Seoul, and a thriving trade with South Korea, Washington and Tokyo are still without a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, and have minimal economic involvement with North Korea. Recognizing Pyongyang without an acceptable resolution of the nuclear issue would be very foolish, since it would give up one of the main cards in our hand; but extending it in a nuclear agreement would be very wise.
Such an offer would be worth making, moreover, even if Pyongyang rejected it. With North Korea's real intentions—its preference for membership in the nuclear club over normalization of relations with the United States, South Korea and Japan—unambiguously exposed, it would be easier to muster the support, at home and abroad, that will be politically necessary to take the tougher steps, involving sanctions and perhaps even force, that may be necessary to solve the problem.
Instead of rejecting such a proposal out of hand, Pyongyang is more likely to retort that the offer does not go far enough, that what is really needed is a peace treaty to replace the armistice that has existed for the last forty years. With such a treaty, the United States would naturally be expected to withdraw its forces from South Korea. To be sure, the acceptance of such a demand in the absence of a phased and verifiable reduction in the armed strength of both Koreas, and the establishment of an acceptable balance of indigenous power on the Korean peninsula, is unthinkable. The likelihood, anyway, is that the North Koreans will not agree to all of our demands, even if we provide them with diplomatic recognition, security assurances and economic assistance.
What, then, will the North Koreans do? At the worst, they will begin to reprocess the extracted fuel rods when they cool off sometime in August, reload their now empty five megawatt reactor and continue to move forward on their nuclear project. At best, they will agree to terminate a future nuclear program, while insisting that we forgo any effort to make them relinquish the fissile material they have already produced, thereby enabling them to maintain a limited nuclear arsenal of at least one or two atom bombs. Each of these possible actions on the part of Pyongyang needs to be carefully analyzed, since each calls for a somewhat different reaction. If North Korea once again repudiates its pledges and goes ahead with its nuclear project, we will have no choice but to impose sanctions. Yet we must recognize that sanctions are not likely to be effective in persuading Pyongyang to accept the proposal that would presumably still be on the table. North Korea already has the most autarchic economy in the world. And it is better positioned than Iraq and Cuba, which have resisted sanctions, for three years and thirty, to go it alone.
But the real problem with sanctions is that their effectiveness is almost wholly dependent on China, which provides Pyongyang with up to 80 percent of its oil, and is the only country with which North Korea has any significant economic relationship. Fearing that sanctions will be ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst, Beijing does not want to risk either precipitating a collapse of the North Korean regime or alienating its only remaining Communist ally in Asia. Even if it abstained on a U.N. Security Council vote to impose sanctions, which is by no means certain, China is unlikely to close its border with North Korea.
In the event that diplomacy and sanctions fail, the only remaining recourse would be the use of force.Just as Israel destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in Iraq, such a scenario would require the United States to launch a surgical strike against the North Korean nuclear complex at Yongbyon. From a technical and military perspective, such an operation is feasible. We have the capacity, using a combination of cruise missiles and stealth bombers, to render North Korea's nuclear facilities inoperable. And if we were to launch an attack when its reactor and reprocessing facilities were empty, as they are now, the spread of radioactive materials beyond the Yongbyon complex could be greatly diminished, if not entirely eliminated.
Here is where the worst-case scenario starts getting spun. With more than 1 million men under arms just north of the demilitarized zone, and with its artillery batteries within easy range of Seoul, the continued quiescence of North Korea's frontline troops cannot be taken for granted. The use of force is likely to provoke a retaliatory response that could have catastrophic consequences. There is a real possibility that it could lead to another major military conflict on the Korean peninsula. The United States and South Korea would undoubtedly prevail, but the cost of victory in blood and treasure would be high. So high, in fact, that there are few people in the corridors of power in Washington, Tokyo or Seoul prepared to seriously consider the military option.
Yet this worst-case scenario may be deeply flawed. The North Korean regime is immoral and irresponsible, but it is not suicidal. Some kind of retaliation by Pyongyang for an attack on Yongbyon would probably be inevitable. Still, a full-scale attack against the South, or an artillery barrage against Seoul, is doubtful, given the likelihood that it would result in the destruction of the North and the collapse of its regime. More likely would be a Scud missile attack against one or more of the eleven nuclear reactors in South Korea, or acts of terrorism directed against the United States or Japan. But even here, the notorious inaccuracy of Scuds, and the presumptive protection of Patriot missiles, would almost certainly blunt such an attack. Terrorism would be harder to combat, but also less threatening.
The other possible, and more likely, response to a generous diplomatic offer in Geneva is that North Korea will agree to forgo the future production of fissile material in exchange for a comprehensive package of diplomatic, security and economic benefits. It will also insist that its past program is off-limits, thereby enabling it to keep weapons-grade material already produced. And this will present the United States with a tough choice. We will have to decide whether it is better to cut off North Korea's future production of fissile material at the price of permitting it to keep what it already has, or whether we should insist on total compliance with the NPT and the North-South agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
It is essential to understand that complete compliance with its obligations as a signatory of the NPT will not suffice: North Korea could continue to produce fissile material and to extract plutonium from it under the eyes of the inspectors. We must insist, therefore, on the implementation of the North-South Accord on the De-Nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which requires Pyongyang to dismantle its reprocessing facility. Our aim is that North Korea shuts it down and takes it apart. But the future of the North Korean program should concern us more than its past. Our stubbornness should not be misplaced. It would make little sense to let Pyongyang assemble a stockpile of nuclear weapons simply because it refuses to surrender the one or two weapons it already may possess; and in such circumstances it would be better to reach an understanding with Pyongyang in which it is permitted to keep the fissile material it already has in exchange for precluding it from accumulating any more. A single North Korean bomb will not threaten global nuclear stability. Many North Korean bombs will.
Forging a consensus among Washington, Tokyo and Seoul will not be easy. South Korea and Japan, understandably concerned about the possible use of nuclear weapons by North Korea against them, have a greater interest than the United States in preventing Pyongyang from being permitted to keep even one or two atomic bombs. The United States, on the other hand, has a greater interest than Japan or South Korea in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. Just as another conventional war on the Korean peninsula would be a worst-case scenario from the perspective of Seoul and Tokyo, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by rogue regimes and terrorist groups would be a worst-case scenario from the perspective of Washington. To honor these differing perspectives, the president should tell South Korea and Japan that we would be prepared to reject any North Korean proposal that would leave it with even a minimal atomic arsenal, should Seoul and Tokyo insist that we do so. In exchange, if Pyongyang refuses to abandon its nuclear project, Seoul and Tokyo should agree to the surgical strike that will be necessary to prevent North Korea from becoming a major and mischievous nuclear state. The chances are that the Japanese and the South Koreans will choose a negotiated settlement over a surgical strike, but choose they must.
Time is running out. In August the North Koreans may move their fuel rods and start to reprocess them. In such circumstances, sanctions, which will serve as a warning to other proliferators, will work too slowly to affect this proliferator. The crisis that Carter said was over will then be upon us. What will matter is the determination of the president. If the only way left to stop a nuclearizing North Korea is the use of force, the president should find the will, and the nerve, to order an attack. This will be a difficult decision to make; but if Clinton finds a way to stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear power, he will have established himself as the leader that the post-cold war world needs him to be. A decade from now, if Pyongyang has proceeded with its nuclear project, and sold atomic bombs to Libya, Iran, Syria and Iraq, not to mention terrorist groups and nationalist armies, historians will rightly describe our timidity as one of the greatest and grimmest failures in history.
Stephen J. Solarz was a United States Congressman, representing New York's 13th District from 1975-1993. He was also a visiting professor of international relations at George Washington University and the co-chairman of the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus.