NORTH KOREA'S nuclear-weapons programs confront us with hard choices. They create a sense of urgency to make another deal with the North, but experience tells us that any new agreement will not the flow of crises. However we handle the immediate crisis, we will do better if we do so while having in mind an end position--something we have not done since the end of the Korean War 50 years ago. The argument here is that there should be different leadership in Pyongyang as a step towards the political unification of the peninsula.
Short of that goal, the main possibility for getting rid of the North's weapons is an agreed strategy between China and the United States. Unfortunately, there is no good evidence that this will happen.
The North's weapons pose three immediate challenges. Combined with its long-range missiles, North Korea's nuclear weapons could inflict devastation at long distances, including the United States. The threat to Japan is already rousing Tokyo to rearm. Worse still, the regime threatens to sell bombs to all comers, including terrorist organizations.
Kim Jong Il's game
THIS CRISIS WAS set off by the North admitting that it had a secret nuclear-weapons program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Negotiated by the Clinton administration, the framework promised economic benefits in return for North Korea's "freezing" its nuclear program. Since breaking the agreement, the Kim Jong Il regime has loudly proclaimed that the U.S. is planning to attack and has demanded a guarantee of security from us. Perhaps seeing our campaign against Iraq has persuaded Kim that he's next. But it seems more likely that he has a different and overriding perspective.
It is to gain enough resources to stay in power. The system his father, Kim IL Sung, perfected combines extreme nationalism, severe internal repression, and a Stalinist economy. The economy's dysfunctions have led to the deaths of upwards of a million people in the past decade. Kim Jong Il's margin of survival comes from extortion. At its core are nuclear weapons--along with an implicit threat of collapse and resulting social chaos that would be costly to North Korea's neighbors.
The weapons program apparently started in the late 1970s and has continued despite several international commitments to stop it, each violated. An obvious reason for starting the program was to change the military balance on the peninsula. Although the North's conventional forces were then relatively stronger than they are now, the U.S. had both troops and nuclear weapons in the South. In 1992 we removed our weapons as part of a denuclearization agreement between North and South--one of several agreements violated by the North. The U.S. estimated that the North could soon make enough plutonium for some nuclear weapons--and might have done so already. The resulting confrontation led to the Agreed Framework in 1994, in which the North agreed to shut down its reactor and store the spent fuel (containing plutonium) under international inspection. We and others agreed to provide food and fuel, to normalize relations, and to build two large nuclear electric power reactors. (The American negotiators seemed to have assumed, not unreasonably in 1994, that the North's regime would be gone by the time the reactors were finished.)
If nuclear weapons were so important in the North's strategy, why did it agree to this freeze? Its principal source of aid, the Soviet Union, had disappeared in 1991. This, plus endemic mismanagement, threw the economy into a slump. Apparently the urgent need for food and fuel, the U.S. threat to attack North Korea's nuclear plants, and perhaps arm-twisting from China did it. (The Chinese did not sweeten the deal with food; they cut their supply in 1994-95.) The North also presumably knew something we have come to believe only since: that it had enough plutonium for a few weapons. And we now know that at some point in the 1990s it started work on a separate, enriched uranium-based weapons program, evidently with Pakistani help. …