A Push against Pyongyang

North Korea’s Oct. 9 nuclear test announcement is a serious and threatening development for several reasons. First, North Korea has now claimed to would-be nuclear consumers around the world that its technology works, increasing the risk it will sell those materials or even weapons it already possesses.

Second, U.S.-South Korean deterrence could be weakened if North Korea now thinks it has a nuclear trump card and tries to play it in some way, engaging in even more blatant brinkmanship than it has in the past. Third, if heaven forbid war in Korea ever occurred again, we now have more reason to worry North Korean nuclear weapons could be successfully employed against South Korean or American military forces — or even Seoul (or Tokyo).

Finally, North Korean nuclear weapons could start a nuclear domino effect in Northeast Asia, possible provoking Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, which would in turn weaken global nonproliferation more broadly.

One might be tempted to argue that, with the cat out of the bag and North Korea possibly now in possession of a proven nuclear arsenal, probably consisting of about 10 remaining weapons, we now have a fait accompli and the issue will recede in substantive and political significance.

This argument is both too optimistic and too fatalistic. It is fatalistic because it gives up too soon. Even though it has become harder to do so, we must still try to walk North Korea’s arsenal back. That hope is increased by the historical facts that the international community ultimately convinced South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to denuclearize (all of which probably had some role in previous testing themselves, whether directly or under Soviet authority).

But accepting North Korea as a nuclear power, as if it is a tolerable development on the world stage, is too blithe about the associated dangers. In addition to the arguments noted above, North Korea has been considering resuming construction on two large reactors with the theoretical capacity to produce enough plutonium for dozens of bombs a year. If that construction progresses substantially, the same types of questions about pre-emptive strikes (actually, in this case, preventive strikes) will be raised as they are being forced to the policy fore by Iran.

So a major new U.S. policy effort is needed. Coming up with one will be very difficult, since the threat of military force is no longer useful to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear capacities. Its plutonium has now been reprocessed and moved, probably in the course of 2003, so the tools available to American policymakers have declined in number. In addition, even before this test, the world had largely accepted a de facto North Korean nuclear arsenal, since North Korea has probably had more than a half-dozen warheads for at least two years without eliciting decisive action from the world community.

The core of a new policy should be to force North Korea to choose between more economic and diplomatic engagement, on the one hand, and less. The goal should be to make the status quo untenable for Pyongyang, forcing it to choose between a better relationship with the outside world as well as more trade, investment and assistance on the one hand and the prospects of pressure and coercion against it on the other. A situation in which North Korea keeps, or even expands, its nuclear arsenal while South Korea and China increase the largess they direct toward that country is intolerable. It is also a very serious indictment of the regimes in Washington, Seoul and Beijing that have allowed this to occur, as North Korea has effectively divided them and split the coalition that was supposed to restrain it.

The United States and its regional partners South Korea, Japan, China and Russia should offer Pyongyang a set of inducements as well as a clear threat that the nuclear status quo, or worse, cannot and will not be accepted. In doing so, they should be careful not to set a precedent for rewarding illicit behavior by granting North Korea large benefits simply for undoing a nuclear program it should not have had in the first place. They should make more comprehensive demands — not only denuclearization, but reductions in conventional forces, elimination of chemical arms, structural economic reform, the beginnings of human-rights improvements — as a condition for substantial increases in aid.

If Pyongyang is prepared to make such a deal, Washington and other capitals should be clear they are prepared to help finance a transition to a Vietnam-style economy in North Korea. Total aid packages in the range of $2 billion to $3 billion a year for several years, to help build infrastructure and revitalize agriculture and improve the public health and even education systems, could be acceptable if North Korea were to move verifiably and decisively in this direction. (More modest reforms could be met with more modest, yet still generous, aid packages.)

U.S. bans on trade and investment could also be lifted, provisionally at first and later in a permanent way; a temporary U.S. diplomatic presence could lead to full relations and a permanent embassy within several years if all goes well. World Bank and U.N. help could also result, as this approach would fit with much of the thinking of the new South Korean designate to replace Kofi Annan at the U.N.

This is admittedly an ambitious vision. It would probably not appeal initially to Kim Jong-il — who might worry that once reform processes were unleashed, he would suffer the fate of Nicolae Ceaucescu in Romania (shot by a rioting crowd) rather than the reformist leaders of today’s Vietnam or China.

But those latter two countries have shown the way. And they have done so while retaining a communist superstructure, which could make the idea potentially palatable to Kim Jong-il and (regrettable as it may be in an ideal world) allow him to remain in power as he transformed his nation.

Moreover, by making the status quo untenable, Mr. Kim could be forced to choose between reform and slow strangulation of his state. Making such a choice stark and believable will require remarkable diplomacy, given how unwilling South Korea and China would now be to apply coercion against North Korea under virtually any circumstances. But the North Korean nuclear test may create an opportunity, given that it has clearly shocked at least some countries in the region normally inclined to treat North Korea with kid gloves. And clear U.S. articulation of a willingness to improve relations with the North, if the North agrees to denuclearize and reform, would go a long way toward building cooperation with Beijing and Seoul.

Of course, even if the basic deal had some appeal to Pyongyang, it might not be feasible to convince the North to give up all of its nuclear capabilities immediately. It might take several years to reach that final goal. But as long as any deal immediately and verifiably froze the North’s nuclear activities, and then quickly began to get plutonium out of North Korea, the United States could accept it.

If negotiations fail, the option of coercive action should be retained. On the economic front, the goal should be to convince South Korea and China that their current level of economic engagement would be inappropriate if Pyongyang refused a reasonable deal.

Military options would not be totally off the table, especially if North Korea either threatened to sell nuclear materials abroad or continued construction on its large reactors. One possibility, though hardly a panacea, would be a “surgical” military strike against the larger reactors. Though it is too late to prevent North Korea from having the plutonium for perhaps 10 bombs, it is not too late to prevent North Korea from becoming an industrial-scale producer of weapons.

But the riskiness of even such a limited use of force should focus all of our minds — in South Korea, China, Japan, the United States and elsewhere — on the overdue need to construct a united front and sternly pose Pyongyang a stark choice at this precarious moment in Northeast Asia.