THERE IS A pervasive desire in the United States and throughout East Asia to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear-armed power, for the prospect of Kim Jong-il's bizarre and unpredictable regime having such a capability is profoundly disturbing. Two factions have emerged in the United States about how to deal with the crisis, and they embrace sharply different strategies. Yet they share an important underlying assumption: that North Korea is using its nuclear program merely as a negotiating ploy, and that Pyongyang can eventually be induced to give up that program.
One group thinks that Washington's top policy objective should be to entice Pyongyang to return to the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which the North Koreans agreed to freeze their nuclear program in exchange for fuel oil shipments and Western assistance in constructing proliferation resistant lightwater reactors for power generation. These advocates of dialogue think the United States should meet North Korea's demand for a non-aggression pact and provide other concessions to resolve the nuclear crisis. Individuals as politically diverse as former President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) have issued impassioned calls for a strategy of dialogue and concessions. Those who advocate that strategy ignore an important point, however: The United States has negotiated with North Korea before, but each understanding or formal agreement seems merely to pave the way for a new round of cheating and a new crisis.
The Bush Administration and most conservatives form the competing faction, which is decidedly more skeptical about the efficacy of offering concessions to Pyongyang. Moreover, it is apparent that the administration has no interest in merely restoring the Agreed Framework. Washington's goal is an agreement that would include comprehensive "on demand" inspections of all possible nuclear weapons sites. Indeed, it was that demand that contributed to an impasse in the six-party talks (involving Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, the United States and North Korea) in August.
The administration's approach combines a willingness to engage in multilateral talks with a determination to tighten the screws economically. One manifestation of the latter component is the Proliferation Security Initiative, which enlists the support of allies to interdict North Korea's trade in ballistic missiles, nuclear technology, illegal drugs and other contraband. The core of Washington's strategy is to forge a united diplomatic and economic front with the nations of East Asia to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.
But if the advocates of negotiations and concessions are naive, proponents of diplomatic pressure and economic coercion may not be much more realistic. It is not at all clear that even comprehensive economic sanctions would produce the desired policy changes. UNICEF has concluded that, because North Korea is already so desperately poor, economic sanctions would have a slight impact. Trying to further isolate one of the world's most economically isolated countries is a little like threatening to deprive a monk of worldly pleasures. Tightening economic sanctions may cause additional suffering among North Korea's destitute masses, but such an approach is unlikely to alter the regime's behavior on the nuclear issue.
Ultimately, the competing strategies of dialogue and economic/diplomatic pressure are based on the same assumption: that the right policy mix will cause the North to give up its nuclear ambitions. But what if that assumption is wrong? CIA director George Tenet concedes that North Korea may believe there is no contradiction between continuing to pursue a nuclear weapons program and seeking a "normal relationship" with the United States--a relationship that would entail substantial concessions from Washington. …