A Fresh Approach to North Korean Nukes Is Needed
February 14, 2005
North Korea has declared that it has nuclear weapons—a capability that U.S. intelligence agencies had suspected for some
time. President Bush is known to have a personal distaste for Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s quirky ruler, and his abysmal
human rights record. Although regime change in the north is not a publicly stated U.S. goal, the president’s
ever-idealistic approach is to ratchet up the pain in an attempt to squeeze the life out of Kim’s tyrannical regime.
Although this approach may seem plausible, it’s counterproductive.
Because the Bush administration has no leverage over North Korea and no effective military alternatives—North Korean
nuclear facilities are hidden and deeply buried and both Seoul and Japan are vulnerable to North Korean retaliatory
strikes in the event of a U.S. attack against the north—it is concentrating on tracking and freezing financial
transactions related to North Korea’s counterfeiting, drug running, and covert weapons sales. Yet such sanctions have
rarely been successful—as the ineffective financial war against al Qaeda should indicate. Governments have never been
effective in ending these rampant clandestine activities. In fact, the international economic isolation of North Korea
drives its government to turn to such illicit ways of raising revenues.
Since military and economic coercion are not likely to sway this Stalinist holdover, perhaps a fresh counterintuitive
approach is needed: empathy. After the neo-conservatives finish screaming about appeasing the human rights monsters in
North Korea, a cooler, more rational analysis might discover that a more empathetic U.S. policy would produce better
results than threats and coercion.
The North Korean government may be an evil, despotic regime with nuclear weapons but the United States has faced much
more formidable foes of this genre: the Soviet Union and radical Maoist China. Furthermore, North Korea is a faraway
land that would have no intrinsic gripe with the United States if the U.S. military had not thrown up a containment wall
around the peninsular nation. The many U.S. military bases and alliances in East Asia mean that the United States is in
North Korea’s face, not vice versa. Thus, the North Korean regime, despite its deplorable human rights record, does have
legitimate security concerns.
Even without such bases and alliances, the United States, with thousands of warheads in the world’s most powerful
nuclear arsenal, should be able to deter a nuclear attack from the few, primitive warheads in North Korea’s nuclear
stockpile. (Of course, this presumes that North Korea will eventually perfect a missile that could carry a heavy nuclear
payload to the continental United States.)
Some have raised the specter of North Korea giving or selling nuclear weapons to terrorists. Yet this threat is
overblown. North Korea has not been an active supporter of terrorists for decades, and only politics keeps it on the
U.S. list of countries sponsoring terrorism. North Korea, desperate for revenues, would not give terrorists the nuclear
weapons that cost so much to develop and produce. And although North Korea has sold weapons to other autocratic nations,
it would be much riskier to sell a nuclear device to an unpredictable terrorist group, such as al Qaeda. If a nuclear
weapon were used against the United States by terrorists who then melted back into the population, and the sale of the
device were traced back to North Korea, enormous pressure would build on the U.S. government to use nuclear weapons
against the only party with an identifiable home address.
If the threat of North Korea supplying terrorists with nuclear weapons is exaggerated and small North Korean nuclear
strikes against the United States can be deterred by the threat of overwhelming retaliation from the globally dominant
U.S. nuclear arsenal, perhaps there is room for negotiation with Kim?
The economic isolation of the north and perpetual U.S. saber rattling make a paranoid North Korean regime even more
likely to build up its nuclear stockpile. Instead of economic and military coercion, the United States should take the
more positive approach of offering an end to economic sanctions and a non-aggression treaty with the north in exchange
for a verifiable elimination—not freeze—of the North Korean nuclear program.
Recently, a similar approach succeeded in dismantling the nuclear program of another “rogue” state. The promise of
reintegration into the world economy played a big role in getting Libya to give up its nuclear program.
Even so, because of past U.S. threats, the suspicious Kim might not accept this trade. In that case, the United States
may just have to accept that some unfriendly, autocratic minor powers may get nuclear weapons. It won’t be the end of
is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty
at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes
, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy