Playing the Long Game Is Risky

James E. Goodby
James E. Goodby Former Brookings Expert, Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow - Hoover Institution

February 20, 2003

America’s surprising neglect of the growing crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program might be attributed to its preoccupation with Iraq. But there may be a strategic purpose behind the Bush administration’s façade of detachment.

What is the national security team of President George W. Bush up to? One answer is that after an anticipated rapid victory over Iraq, the negotiating hand of the United States will be strengthened and Pyongyang will agree to a settlement on better terms than could be got now.

Except that the pace of events in Northeast Asia might outstrip such a strategy. In any case, this thinking doesn’t seem to fit the administration’s known aversion both to Kim Jong Il and to negotiated arms restraint. Washington could be playing the long game: Pyongyang will build several nuclear weapons and a long-range ballistic missile delivery system with only token opposition from the international community, but sooner or later North Korea will collapse and a unified Korea will renounce nuclear weapons.

That approach fits with the reported view of Secretary of State Colin Powell that since North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs, it doesn’t matter if it has a few more.

But this is a risky strategy. If North Korea becomes a declared nuclear weapons state like India and Pakistan, Japan and South Korea will have to consider joining the club. The Bush administration doesn’t seem to mind nuclear weapons in the hands of friends.

An unlikely possibility is that the United States is ready to have a military showdown with North Korea once most of the fighting in Iraq has ended. Kim Jong Il probably expects this.

Why is war in Northeast Asia unlikely? Because devastation in Korea would be on a scale not seen since the 1950-1953 Korean War. And there could be other horrific developments—attacks with nuclear weapons by North Korea or the United States or both. The Bush administration understands this as well as anyone.

So it seems likely that the long game strategy is the only option the administration has, given its ideological bias against political settlements, its preoccupation with Iraq and the march of events in Northeast Asia.

Unfortunately, such a conclusion validates the assessment of George Tenet, the CIA director, that the weakening of the post-World War II consensus against the spread of nuclear arms has ushered in “a new world of proliferation.”

If Pyongyang is allowed to continue developing nuclear weapons, there will be strong pressure on South Korea and Japan to go nuclear as well. And a desperate North Korea might one day be tempted to sell nuclear products to others, including terrorist organizations.