Pyongyang: Reform or Abyss

Is there anything that can now be done about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal? After all, it has probably had one or two nuclear warheads for more than a decade and up to 10 for a couple of years. It has watched Pakistan test warheads, be punished and then forgiven. It has watched the alliance between South Korea and the US struggle during the Bush administration, with Seoul and Washington competing to see who will undo the joint command structure that has ensured military deterrence and stability on the peninsula more rapidly than the other.

The short answer is that we must try. Given North Korea’s record of selling weaponry and nuclear technology abroad, its proclivities for brinkmanship and the likely domino effect of nuclear proliferation in east Asia, nuclear weapons in its hands make the world a notably less safe place. So a major new US policy effort is needed. The core of a new policy should be to force North Korea to decide between more economic and diplomatic engagement on the one hand and less on the other. 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 — and the prospect of pressure and coercion. Does it want to become the next Vietnam, reforming its economy and society from within a communist system? Or does it wish to sink into the abyss of further economic decline and possible state failure?

The US and its regional partners, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, should offer Pyongyang carrots but threaten sticks if it remains recalcitrant. In offering incentives, they should be careful not to set a precedent for rewarding illicit behaviour by granting North Korea large benefits simply for undoing a nuclear programme it should not have had in the first place. They should make more comprehensive demands — not only denuclearisation, but reductions in conventional forces and missiles, elimination of chemical arms, structural economic reform, human rights improvements — as a condition for substantial increases in aid. If Pyongyang is prepared to make such a deal, or even move significantly towards reformist policies, Washington and other capitals should be clear that they are prepared to help finance a transition to a Vietnam-style economy in North Korea. Aid of $2bn to $3bn a year for several years, to help build infrastructure and revitalise agriculture and improve the public health and even education systems, would make sense if North Korea were to move verifiably in this direction. US bans on trade and investment could also be gradually lifted; a temporary US diplomatic presence could lead to full relations and a permanent embassy within several years if all went well. The United Nations system, including the World Bank, could help as well under the direction of Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general designate.

This is an ambitious vision. It would probably not appeal initially to Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader — who might worry that once reform was unleashed, he would suffer the fate of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, who was overthrown and executed, rather than that of the reformist leaders of modern-day Vietnam or China. But those two countries have shown the way by retaining a communist superstructure, which could make the idea palatable to Mr Kim and (regrettable as it may be) allow him to remain in power as he transformed his nation. Moreover, Mr Kim would be forced to choose between reform and the slow strangulation of his state.

Making such a choice stark and be­lievable will require remarkable diplomacy, given the unwillingness of South Korea and China to coerce North Korea under virtually any circumstance. But this week’s nuclear test may create an opportunity, as it has shocked countries in the region normally inclined to treat North Korea with kid gloves.

Military options would not be 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. Even though it is too late to prevent North Korea from having the plutonium for perhaps 10 bombs, it is not too late to prevent it becoming an industrial-scale producer of weapons.

But the riskiness of even such a limited use of force should focus all our minds on the need to construct a united front and pose Pyongyang a stark choice at this precarious moment.