The North Korean Nightmare
It's Later Than You Think

E. H. Carr's powerful little book The Twenty Years' Crisis presciently argued in 1939 that the events leading Europe to war were not sudden and new, but rather two decades in the making; that interwar Europe's crisis was rooted in power politics, framed by the insatiable ambitions of revisionist states, and intensified by the stubborn unwillingness of some European (and American) leaders to recognize these unpleasant but unyielding realities. Though written in another time and of another place, The Twenty Years' Crisis could be offered as briefing material today for policymakers struggling to make sense of the international drama revolving around the nuclear weapons program of North Korea.

North Korea's nuclear crisis, of course, is not exactly breaking news. If, like Professor Carr, we wish to date the duration of the crisis, we would be obliged to look back many years: perhaps to Pyongyang's November 1992 refusal to cooperate with the inspectors from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who were attempting to reconstruct the full history of two suspect sites in North Korea's nuclear program; or to North Korea's March 1993 announcement of its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that gave IAEA inspectors authority to pursue their inquiry; or even to the attendant March 1993 declaration by North Korea's Kim Jong Il of a "semi-state of war" and warning that "a touch-and-go grave situation has been created in which war may break out at any moment."

Indeed, the following depiction of the crisis on the Korean peninsula, written by Paul Bracken in the fall of 1993, might just as well have been published yesterday:

North Korea is in a crisis that threatens its existence. . . . The situation is extraordinarily dangerous because these are the highest stakes possible. The Korean Peninsula, moreover, is heavily militarized and lacking in crisis management capacities. Dealing with nuclear proliferation in this high-stakes setting will be much more difficult than solving proliferation problems in other countries. . . . The absolutist regime in the North has limited maneuvering room and must operate within very shaky military and economic structures. Although there are risks of pressing it too hard, a nuclear-armed North Korea would constitute the long-feared nightmare of the international community: an over-armed state in a desperate position; with unstable decision-makers and poor command and control.

To be sure, the current particulars of the North Korean nuclear crisis differ in some respects from those a decade earlier. But it is nevertheless the same crisis, shaped by the same fundamentals. And like Carr's Twenty Years' Crisis, this Korean crisis may fester for years to come. But just as in interwar Europe, the balance is inherently unstable. Some decisive event or events will finally spark dramatic--perhaps explosive--changes that profoundly reconfigure the region's security equation.

For most of the actors embroiled in the drama--the United States, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia--the preferred outcome to the crisis would be a comprehensive and peaceful resolution through diplomatic negotiations. But in this drama, as in Europe's interwar drama, the most desirable outcome may well be the least likely. Given the character and objectives of the drama's central actor--the regime in Pyongyang--it is difficult to see how the contending interests of the principal parties could be harmonized. This is not to suggest that we shall not see international talks convened or "breakthroughs" claimed. (We have, after all, already seen plenty of that over the past decade; more of the same likely lies ahead.) It is instead to suggest that such talks and "breakthroughs" are exceedingly unlikely to defuse the ongoing crisis itself.

The North Korean nuclear crisis of 2002-2004 has been treated as a terrible surprise by practically all of the governments that have become embroiled in it. Before that eruption, it is well to remember, cautious optimism about a newly constructive attitude in Pyongyang had been spreading in international diplomatic circles for several years. And the optimists seemed to have facts on their side, for in the period between late 1999 and October 2002--that is to say, until the month Washington confronted North Korea with evidence that it was running a secret nuclear program in contravention of many pledges and treaty obligations--relations between Pyongyang and its neighbors (indeed, with the entire international community) were arguably better than at any previous point since the end of the Korean War.

Recall: South Korean president Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" had resulted in the first-ever summit meeting between the Korean heads of state in the summer of 2000. Later that year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang, the highest-level visit by any U.S. official ever to North Korea. North Korea's international attitude was judged sufficiently propitious that eight European states (including Britain, Germany, and Italy) and the E.U. chose to normalize relations with Pyongyang. In September 2002, the Japanese prime minister also visited Pyongyang. That was the first visit to North Korea by a Japanese head of state. Kim Jong Il conducted two official visits to Russia in 2001 and 2002; these had been preceded by a historic visit to Pyongyang by Russian president Vladimir Putin in the summer of 2000. Chinese President Jiang Zemin also visited Pyongyang in September 2001. North Korea even seemed to be attempting to emulate China in a brief, failed experiment to open a special economic zone on the Yalu River in September 2002.

Against such a seemingly promising backdrop, the sudden radical downward spiral in North Korea's external relations since October 2002 looks all the more dismaying--and to many, puzzling. Central to any appraisal of the unfolding crisis must be an attempt to understand the motivations behind Pyongyang's covert project to produce the highly enriched uranium (HEU) used in nuclear warheads. Some analysts regard the attempt to acquire nuclear weapons as a classic strategy to further North Korea's goal of reunifying the peninsula militarily. Others emphasize survival--a last-gasp effort to save the dying regime of Kim Jong Il. Still others see in it a combination of motives: multiple attempts to assist regime survival, to assure "existential" deterrence against the United States, to prop up regime morale, and to intimidate South Korea and Japan.

Let us first examine, however, some of the hypotheses that cannot explain Pyongyang's behavior. After the October 2002 revelation of North Korea's covert nuclear program, much sotto voce criticism in diplomatic circles implied or stated that the current crisis was caused by the United States--specifically, by the hostile posture of the Bush administration. In this telling, the White House's flirtation with a doctrine of preemption, its designation of North Korea as a member of an "axis of evil," and the president's own trenchantly expressed "personal loathing" for Kim Jong Il pressed the North Korean government to abandon a policy of conciliation and grasp for nuclear options.

Yet a quick look at the chronology of the current crisis shows that the Bush administration cannot be the proximate agent of the current impasse. To put the matter bluntly, the latest turn of the North Korean nuclear crisis did not begin with a change of attitude in Washington. Rather, it commenced when Pyongyang was caught cheating--and admitted to it!

Moreover, as Western intelligence sources now seem to agree, the secret HEU program had begun by 1997--that is to say, years before the current administration came to office. That covert program, it is worth noting, barreled forward during the halcyon days of Kim Dae Jung's sunshine policy. It was going forward as North Korea normalized diplomatic relations with the E.U. and as Secretary Albright danced in Pyongyang. And it was proceeding even as the Japanese prime minister and Kim Jong Il signed a joint declaration pledging to "observe all the international agreements for a comprehensive solution to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula." The tenor of international relations, in other words, seems to have had no bearing on Pyongyang's inclination to pursue a secret nuclear weapons program.

Another unsatisfactory hypothesis--one canvassed mainly in progressive circles in South Korea--holds that the North's HEU program was actually devised as an inducement to break out of the existing diplomatic impasse with the United States, and to reach a more comprehensive settlement of the outstanding disagreements separating Washington and Pyongyang. Noting that North Korea's HEU project looks to be a slow program requiring years to complete, this argument suggests that the North's leadership chose this type of program precisely so that they could go about their game slowly and would have time to negotiate and bargain before they actually had a weapon.

Like the previous theory, this one too is empirically challenged. It neglects the hardly trivial fact that North Korea was caught out in a flagrant nuclear violation. Nuclear deceptions and nuclear violations, furthermore, are not ideal lubricants for a diplomatic breakthrough between two mistrustful governments. While it is true that slow progress in accumulating highly enriched uranium was foreordained by the decision to use many small centrifuges for the job, that choice seems to have been made to avoid detection. There is no evidence that Pyongyang would have informed its putative American negotiating partner of the HEU project if it had not been detected by U.S. intelligence.

At the end of the day, there remain a welter of alternative and in some measure conflicting theories about the intentions underlying North Korea's decision to pursue a secret nuclear weapons program. Faced with contending possible explanations for less-than-perfectly-understood events, logicians and epistemologists have long favored the most parsimonious explanation, aka Ockham's razor. To go by that approach, we might simply surmise that the drive to develop nuclear weapons reflects Pyongyang's deep desire to possess them.

It may want them for deterrence, as a national symbol, for economic benefits. It may want them as an insurance policy for state survival; as a tool in the quest for unconditional reunification with South Korea; as a means of equalizing its highly unequal contest with the United States. We may never have enough information to permit us to calibrate the relative importance of the many different possible factors that could stimulate the North Korean leadership's desire for nuclear weapons. We do know, however, that North Korean leadership plainly seems to want nuclear weapons and to want them badly. We know, for example, that North Korea has been pursuing its nuclear program for decades--and that it has built, at great expense to a very poor society, a complex and diversified nuclear infrastructure. As Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. noted shortly after the HEU effort was publicly revealed,

Given what the West knows about North Korea's nuclear programme, it is evident that it has been, and is being, pursued in a manner similar to that of China. That is, in a parallel manner, exploring multiple paths concurrently rather than in serial form with each development building on the last.

The comparison with China seems particularly instructive. Like Beijing in an earlier era, North Korea has pressed forward with its nuclear project despite desperate privation and even famine, and regardless of its impact on relations with other countries. Nor have North Korea's nuclear actions in the months since October 2002 betrayed much ambivalence about the prospect of attaining nuclear-power status: Over this period, Pyongyang has declared the U.S.-North Korean "Agreed Framework" for freezing its nuclear facilities to be null and void; has formally withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; has expelled all IAEA monitors from its Yongbyon nuclear facility, removed all "safeguards" from the Yongbyon equipment, and opened the facility's 8,000 formerly sealed plutonium reactor rods; has announced it is reprocessing that plutonium; and has declared that its precarious military standoff with the United States is impelling it to develop a nuclear "peace deterrent."

All evidence at our disposal, in short, suggests that the North Korean leadership has treated the acquisition of a nuclear capability as an enduring and unshakable commitment, a top state priority. The troubling corollary to this analysis, of course, is that governments are not easily dissuaded from pursuing their own top priorities. The notion that the Pyongyang regime could be talked out of completing its longstanding nuclear weapons project would seem to require from students of international security something like a suspension of belief in the realities of power politics. Simply put, North Korea's arduous march toward becoming a nuclear power does not look like the sort of "international dispute" that is headed off by conventional negotiations.

Over the past two years, North Korea's neighbors have responded to the unfolding nuclear drama in varying ways. Distance from Pyongyang seems to govern these responses. The states furthest away have expressed the strongest responses, while the contiguous states have reacted rather calmly.

Considering that Russia (or rather the Soviet Union) probably had more to do with North Korea's nuclear weapons program than any other government, Moscow has seemed unperturbed by the entire situation. Rather than regarding an unstable neighbor's acquisition of nuclear weapons as a ticking time-bomb (so to speak), it has acted as if the latest crisis were an opportunity. Russian president Vladimir Putin and his foreign policy apparatus have to date treated Pyongyang's attempt to develop nuclear weapons not as a threat to international security--or to Russia's own interests--but instead as a device whereby Russia might regain its lost diplomatic foothold in North Korea, and reattain a measure of its former influence in Northeast Asia.

China remained surprisingly quiet about the North Korean nuclear issue in the months after the HEU revelations. The top Chinese leadership was already dealing with a vital domestic political issue--namely, the matter of leadership succession--and was thus more than usually loath to take an active role in a dispute involving North Korea, as Washington had been pleading for it to do. (President Bush phoned Chinese President Jiang Zemin three times in early 2003 to try to get a Chinese commitment to cooperate.) Chinese leaders are no doubt disturbed by the idea of a nuclear crisis leading to a war or the collapse of the North Korean regime. Yet until the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Beijing seemingly wished to limit its involvement in the deliberations with North Korea, and called for the United States to engage the North Korean leadership directly. Even so, China may have become impatient with the North's brinkmanship. David M. Lampton, a noted China-watcher in Washington, argued that China's leadership went from "complacent" to "apoplectic" over the North Koreans in the space of six months following the HEU revelations.

There were some fairly strong signals of Beijing's increasing displeasure with North Korea even before March 2003. The week after Pyongyang announced its impending withdrawal from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, for example, China staged a seven-day military exercise near the North Korean border. And although the reductions were not publicly announced, Chinese trade data suggest that economic subsidies to North Korea were significantly cut between 2001 and 2002--a drop that continued into early 2003, when, in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom, China took the diplomatic initiative to broker multilateral talks with North Korea. (Since March 2003, China has hosted four such sessions: one round of three-way talks between Pyongyang, Washington, and Beijing, and three rounds of Six Party talks that also included Moscow, Tokyo, and Seoul.) Interestingly enough, though China has apparently used its economic leverage with North Korea now and again, it has to date consistently leaned against the threat of international economic sanctions: perhaps because Beijing fears such measures might actually undermine the North Korean regime, with untold consequences for China, or perhaps because such sanctions would be an application of pressure on the North beyond Beijing's own immediate control.

Despite Japan's reputation as an inveterate "hedger" in international crises, Japanese leaders, dealing with the aftermath of their own North Korean crisis involving Japanese abductees, moved unmistakably behind the United States on the latest nuclear crisis. When news of the North Korean announcement during Kelly's October 2002 trip became public, Tokyo immediately issued a denunciation; Prime Minister Koizumi added that the issue of normalizing relations with Pyongyang could go no further until both the issues of Japanese abductees and the North Korean nuclear program were resolved to Japan's satisfaction.

In the wake of the nuclear revelations, Japan adopted a number of uncharacteristically bold responses; surprisingly, these were met with little domestic opposition. First, in a departure from half a century of Japanese security policy, Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba declared that Tokyo would advocate, and participate in, a preemptive strike against North Korea if Japan were in imminent danger of North Korean missile attack. Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi publicly supported Ishiba's position, explaining that such a move would be "within the legal framework" of the Japanese constitution, which limits military actions to self-defense. Second, after decades of tolerating such commerce, Japan moved to cut off sources of cash remittances that have been making their way into North Korea from the community of Japanese of Korean descent with ties to Pyongyang. In the Diet session that ended in June, Tokyo further stiffened its legal strictures, enabling the government to impose economic sanctions on North Korea unilaterally, and likewise summarily to ban specific ships from docking at Japanese ports.

Third, in June 2003 the Japanese Diet passed a series of war contingency bills that allow the government to assume increased powers in times of national emergency. That these bills passed with little controversy attests to the Japanese public's newly heightened concerns about security threats to their country--especially from North Korea. It should also be noted that Japan's moves were taken with little regard for public opinion across Asia, a consideration that weighed heavily on Japanese foreign and security policy in the past.

The latest round of the North Korean nuclear drama demonstrated that Tokyo has not yet mastered its habitual impulse to "hedge" in times of trouble. This past May, Prime Minister Koizumi felt compelled to make another visit to North Korea for another summit with Kim Jong Il--and to report after this séance that the Dear Leader "clearly" wanted to denuclearize his country. (This improbable declaration was followed a few months later by a renewed commitment of Japanese food aid for the also-unending North Korean food crisis.)

Even so: Japan's stance on the latest North Korean nuclear crisis has been practically the polar opposite of its position on the previous one. In the 1993-94 nuclear crisis, when U.S. forces were contemplating strikes against North Korea's nuclear facilities, Washington was unsure whether American planes would be welcome to land at Japanese civilian airports in case of emergency. Yet this shift in posture only signified that Japan was ready to follow on the North Korean nuclear problem. Tokyo was still unwilling and incapable of leading in a regional crisis.

The country most directly affected by the North Korean nuclear crisis, of course, is South Korea. Yet initially South Korean leaders seemed to be the least concerned with events just north of Seoul. As the crisis broke in the fall of 2002, Kim Dae Jung was already under siege for irregularities surrounding his sunshine policy: Evidence had surfaced that his government had made secret and illegal payments to the North, perhaps amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, to secure the historic Pyongyang summit of June 2000. But President Kim was not prepared to admit that the new North Korean nuclear revelations threatened the very rationale of his beloved policy; indeed, his administration attempted to conduct business more or less as if the discovery of the HEU program had not occurred. In late 2002, South Korea was in the midst of a close, heated, and ideologically charged presidential election. A wave of anti-U.S. sentiment was sweeping the younger generation of South Koreans in the wake of the acquittal of two U.S. soldiers who had accidentally run over two young Korean schoolgirls in their military vehicle. It was obviously a less than auspicious time for U.S.-South Korean cooperation on the North Korean crisis.

The election of Roh Moo Hyun in December 2002 did nothing to dispel U.S. concerns about the reliability of its South Korean partner and ally. In the two months between election and inauguration, the Roh team did almost nothing to suggest to officials in Washington that the new administration would join the United States in confronting the North Korean nuclear problem. Doubt was expressed across South Korea that a nuclear weapons program even existed in the North, and at one point Roh himself was quoted as implying that if a war began he would keep South Korea out of the hostilities and act as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang.

But if Roh was inclined to equanimity about the mounting North Korean threat, others whose opinion he could not ignore were not. In a blow to the confidence of the young Roh administration, Moody's Investors Service downgraded South Korea's credit rating outlook by two notches, from positive to negative, specifically citing the North Korean nuclear crisis; the ratings cut was accompanied by a significant dip in the South Korean stock market, a drop in foreign direct investment, a spike in borrowing costs, and an economic slowdown, all attributed in part to business jitters about the North Korean situation. At roughly the same time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld broached the idea of drawing back a significant portion of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, especially those along the demilitarized zone (DMZ). It soon became clear that this was not a trial balloon, but instead a decision already determined. The prospect of a repositioning of American forces sent a shock through the South Korean body politic--and the possibility that the Pentagon's "rationalization" plan might actually prefigure a U.S. withdrawal was greeted with almost universal dismay, even in circles that had been extremely critical of U.S. policy just weeks before.

Under these unexpected pressures, the Roh government changed course, disavowing their most memorable comments from the prior months. Prime Minister Goh Kun called for U.S. forces to remain in Korea for deterrent purposes. Army Chief of Staff Nam Jae Joon "clarified" the government's military position by specifically identifying North Korea as the main threat to the security of the South. Although this designation might seem utterly unsurprising, the fact of the matter is that the Kim Dae Jung administration could not bring itself to describe the North in such a manner for most of its time in office.

By the time Roh visited Washington in May 2003, it was clear that the new president wanted to be seen as a partner with Washington. A healthy and credible U.S.-South Korea alliance, Roh had quickly learned, was imperative not only to restore public confidence in his rule in South Korea, but also to reassure the industrial and financial communities at home and abroad that South Korea was still a safe place to do business. Thus the Roh administration found itself in the delicate position of attempting a policy of "dual appeasement": of simultaneously placating Pyongyang and Washington. It was a tricky business, depending more than a little on vagueness and official indecision. In a June 2003 summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, for example, Roh concurred in the formulation that a nuclear-armed North Korea would be "intolerable": but he carefully avoided spelling out exactly what measures would be "tolerable" to prevent this eventuality.

In subsequent months the "dual appeasement" approach not only persisted, but became routinized. Thus, on the one hand, Roh would press the National Assembly to approve the dispatch of South Korean troops in support of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, while on the other, Roh's newly minted unification minister would urge humanitarian relief workers and NGOs not to help North Korean refugees to flee their wretched homeland, counseling instead "restraint." The dynamic of dual appeasement took a potentially momentous turn in the spring of 2004, in the wake of a clownish presidential impeachment ploy engineered by South Korea's opposition party. North Korea's media howled for punishment of the lawmakers who had favored the appeasement-prone president; at the April 2004 polls, South Korean voters duly obliged. For the very first time in the history of divided Korea, the electorate in the South had concurred with advice from the regime in the North about the conduct of their own country's domestic affairs.

The United States has remained the most outspoken advocate of a tough line with Pyongyang--no great surprise, considering President Bush's unconcealed contempt for Kim Jong Il and his administration's doctrinal support for "regime change" as an instrument of international security policy. But a harsh attitude toward North Korea and its nuclear violations should not necessarily be mistaken for a coherent and effective policy. At various points during the escalating North Korean crisis, the Bush administration's position has seemed confused, reactive, or vacillating. Indeed, three and a half years into its tenure, the administration still seems to be searching for internal consensus, with the major differences of opinion within the government, particularly between the State Department and the Pentagon, by no means completely resolved.

The end of the military campaign in Iraq was expected by some to free up policy planning time for the North Korean problem, but this does not seem to have happened. Ironically, America's most substantive initiative in Korean affairs has involved South Korea--this being the envisioned realignment of U.S. forces, with a one-third reduction of U.S. forces in Korea now slated to take place by the end of 2005. While some would argue that the impending realignment was sensible and even long overdue, no one could seriously argue that it was the most pressing problem facing the United States in the Korean peninsula at the time.

By adopting the defiant but nonetheless largely passive posture of refusing to give in to North Korean blackmail, the Bush administration seems to be looking for other nations to take the lead on Korea. Of course, this stance may pay off sooner or later. The question is: How long can the world wait? Perhaps the White House is privy to reliable intelligence that the North's nuclear weapons program is still far from its objective. One can only hope this is the case, for problems in other regions, including the Middle East, promise to occupy still more of Washington's attention in the none-too-distant future. Already another nuclear crisis, this one in Iran, threatens to overshadow the dangerous sequence of events playing out on the Korean peninsula.

The Bush administration looks to be playing a waiting game with North Korea--while North Korea seems to be busily rushing toward its goal of declared nuclear power status. The yawning gap between the problem at hand and the American response to it is palpable: Almost two years into the latest flare-up in the North Korean nuclear crisis, Washington not only lacks a solution for this acute problem, but has apparently not yet begun to fashion a feasible approach to such a solution.

Although the Bush administration has made clear its disdain for the conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang taken by President Bill Clinton, it has offered very little indication of just what should replace it. To date, the administration's most proactive response to the North Korean nuclear crisis has been the creation of a multinational Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) for interdicting North Korean contraband abroad (an effort, it should be noted, that South Korea has declined to join).

Otherwise, the administration's record on North Korean affairs consists mainly of loudly proclaimed complaints about the pressure for bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang; of the affectation of an attitude of unconcern about North Korean threats to proceed with plutonium processing; and of taxonomic reclassification of Pyongyang to a member of the "axis of evil" from the Clinton administration's "state of concern."

Three alternative outcomes from the current impasse suggest themselves. The first would be to achieve a peaceful negotiated settlement--a diplomatic agreement whereby the North gave up its nuclear weapons program. (This is precisely what many argued Washington had arranged in the 1994 Agreed Framework, with the exchange of the Yongbyon facility for security pledges and economic incentives.) The second would be to ignore the North's extortion diplomacy and simply accept the advent of a nuclear-armed North Korea, coping with all the attendant dangers as they arise. A third outcome would be to implement and see through a strategy of regime change in Pyongyang.

The peaceful negotiated settlement is clearly the preferable outcome for most of the governments caught up in the North Korean nuclear crisis. It would be the least troubling and most immediately advantageous scenario for all of Pyongyang's potential negotiating partners. Unfortunately, the prospect of a negotiated agreement to dismantle Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program is extraordinarily remote. One may appreciate the odds against such an outcome when one considers the many obstacles against it.

One must begin with the problem of North Korean intentions. Over the past dozen years Western diplomacy has devoted no small effort to probing these. In the early 1990s, the South's Roh Tae Woo administration probed them for two years, eventually securing a Joint North-South Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in 1992. When that agreement collapsed, the Clinton administration and the U.S. government probed Pyongyang's nuclear intentions with the year and a half of diplomacy that culminated in the 1994 Agreed Framework. After 1998, in the wake of the first episode that threatened to topple the Agreed Framework, the Clinton administration probed North Korean intentions still further through what became known as the "Perry Process." And of course President Kim Dae Jung probed North Korean nuclear intentions from 1998 to early 2003 with his now-discredited sunshine policy. Reviewing this record, one might suggest we have a fairly clear idea of North Korea's nuclear intentions--like them or not. Those intentions do not exactly look conducive to a voluntary deal to denuclearize North Korea.

A second problem concerns the international precedent that would be established by a negotiated solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Thus far, North Korea has violated nonproliferation strictures more explicitly and provocatively than any other state--yet it has suffered no penalties for its behavior (apart from the cutoff of free oil supplies when the Agreed Framework foundered). The international community has already purchased an end to the North Korean nuclear program, through the now-moribund Agreed Framework. If it were to provide resources to shut down the North Korean nuclear project once again in a new negotiated settlement, the signal to would-be proliferators in other locales could only be destabilizing. The lesson of such a deal would not be lost on the government of Iran, or on the people of a reconstructed Iraq (whose former government was punished much more severely for much less threatening nuclear transgressions--perhaps precisely because they were not yet threatening). A negotiated settlement with rewards for Pyongyang would send a very dangerous message: Namely, swift development of a credible nuclear capability can be a savvy and profitable strategy--especially if a state finds itself in financial trouble.

Apart from all the other obstacles to a diplomatic settlement of the current nuclear crisis, there are forbidding particulars that should not be forgotten. Apart from the July 1953 armistice ending the Korean conflict--which has been upheld only through continuing force of American arms--it is hard to point to an agreement Pyongyang has abided by over its 55 years of state power. For nearly three decades, Pyongyang has been in effective default on hundreds of millions of dollars in loans it contracted in the West, and Soviet Bloc archives now reveal that North Korea routinely ignored the terms of its borrowings from Socialist creditors. North Korea has regularly and repeatedly flouted the protocols surrounding the use of diplomatic pouches, using these to transport narcotics and other illegal material to countries in which North Korean officials enjoy diplomatic immunity. The North Korean government has sponsored state terrorism in countries with which it enjoyed diplomatic relations. It has violated the territorial waters of governments who have granted it diplomatic recognition through state-sponsored shipments of drugs and military contraband. Given this history, why should anyone believe that North Korea would adhere to any new agreement--much less an agreement on nuclear arms?

The second possible outcome of the current crisis involves living with a nuclear North Korea. The United States has lived with, and outlasted, dangerous nuclear states in the past, as the history of the Cold War attests. But the costs and risks posed by a nuclear North Korea would be fearsome. The example of a North Korean nuclear breakout would encourage proliferation in other regions--and a nuclear North Korea could abet that proliferation through export of armaments, technology, and know-how. Within the Northeast Asian region, the impact of North Korea's entry into the nuclear club would also be far-reaching. More than any other modern state, Pyongyang makes its living off international military extortion; nuclear weaponry would dramatically improve the expected returns of that policy. With a hostile nuclear North Korea at its geographic center, the economies of the Northeast Asian region could not help but suffer: The business downturn that Seoul suffered as a consequence of North Korean saber-rattling in early 2003 presumably represents only a foretaste of what might lie in store for South Korea, Japan, and even China. And a nuclear-armed North Korea would necessarily and inescapably undermine the credibility of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, and the U.S.-Japan alliance--the very security architecture upon which postwar Northeast Asia's economic and political successes have been built. The erosion of deterrence in Northeast Asia could have further unpredictable, possibly cascading, consequences. None of them is likely to be pleasant.

The third possible outcome would be for the international community (or the United States) to aim for, and to achieve, regime change in the North. It is more difficult to generalize about this outcome. One can be assured that the path to regime change would be fraught with danger, and that the result, under even the most optimistic variants, would involve tremendous disruption and uncertainty. It does not require much imagination, for example, to see how a successful push for regime change could precipitate a mass exodus of starving North Koreans, whether overland into China and Russia, or by boat to Japan and South Korea. There is also a real possibility that the push for regime change in North Korea could result in war, in which case the likelihood of Seoul's escaping unscathed would seem quite small. In any event, however, a push for regime change in Pyongyang does not look to be in the cards. Whatever their other differences, the governments of China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan are today united in their aversion to a policy of promoting regime change in Pyongyang. Within the senior reaches of the Bush administration, the notion of regime change in North Korea has been discussed--but apparently, only toyed with. Occasional flirtations notwithstanding, American policy has never actually embraced the argument that regime change is either desirable or necessary in North Korea.

With no coalescence around a strategy for the North Korea problem, either in Washington or among America's partners in Northeast Asia, the situation is tilting in an incalculable direction. As during the interwar years of 1919-1939, there is an unstable equilibrium, and we are faced with an inherently dangerous situation. One additional factor makes the situation today even more dangerous than is widely appreciated: the North Korean leadership's poor decision-making record. Consider: Pyongyang's attempt to revitalize its economy in September 2002 through a vaunted "special autonomous region" for Sinuiju deteriorated into a fiasco when the project's newly chosen boss, the controversial Chinese businessman Yang Bin, was detained, tried, and convicted by Chinese authorities. In September 2002, Kim Jong Il's attempted "confession diplomacy" with Japan badly backfired, setting back prospects for North Korean-Japanese diplomatic normalization even further than they had been before the summit with Prime Minister Koizumi. This series of faux pas was followed by the nuclear tirades of October 2002 at meetings with Assistant Secretary of State Kelly that set the current phase of the North Korean nuclear drama in motion.

The most recent nuclear crisis raises further questions about the ability of the North Korean leadership to manage crises. In past disputes, the North Korean leadership consistently, and often skillfully, attempted to play off one nation against another. Today, by contrast, Kim Jong Il has managed to alienate and alarm most of his neighbors simultaneously--even though they have not yet responded to his mounting threats. To the extent one can today detect in Northeast Asia the nascent components of a coalition to punish North Korea for its nuclear transgressions, it is a prospective coalition being assembled more through the inadvertent actions of Pyongyang than through the conscious design of Washington. To quote once again Paul Bracken's 1993 study:

This [situation] is dangerous because it indicates that little learning is taking place and that North Korea is a country in which the ruler is all-powerful, but ill-informed and unrestrained by competent advice. The danger, of course, is heightened by the fact that this decision-making system has control of an enormous military force and potential nuclear force, however small. . . . What this means is that North Korea is likely to be dangerously bad at crisis management. North Korea's policy is a loose collection of eccentric ideas emanating from the top through an incoherent--yet large and deadly--security structure that is short on caution and coordination.

Bracken's admonition should be kept very much in mind by anyone attempting to envision the eventual outcome of our yet-unfinished Ten Years' Crisis with nuclear North Korea. We may hope that the world community weathers this crisis in better and wiser fashion than it did the Twenty Years' Crisis some three generations ago; the record of events to date, however, provides but fragile grounds for such a hope.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt chair in political economy at AEI. Joseph P. Ferguson is director of Northeast Asian studies at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) in Seattle. This essay draws upon a longer study in NBR's Strategic Asia.

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Monday, October 20, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Warfare beneath the waves: The undersea domain in Asia

We welcome you to join us for a panel discussion of the undersea military competition occurring in Asia and what it means for the United States and its allies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters

AEI’s Election Watch is back! Please join us for two sessions of the longest-running election program in Washington, DC. 

Event Registration is Closed
Wednesday, October 22, 2014 | 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
What now for the Common Core?

We welcome you to join us at AEI for a discussion of what’s next for the Common Core.

Thursday, October 23, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Brazil’s presidential election: Real challenges, real choices

Please join AEI for a discussion examining each candidate’s platform and prospects for victory and the impact that a possible shift toward free-market policies in Brazil might have on South America as a whole.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.