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A bold Plan B for North Korea

The US should consider inducing China to topple the Kim regime.

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The second option would be to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and rely on deterrence to prevent aggressive behavior. There is a credible argument for that approach. After all, the US has deterred other nuclear bad actors in the past, most notably the Soviet Union and Maoist China, and the vast US strategic arsenal probably could deter the likes of Kim Jong Il.

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But being able to deter an outright attack still leaves room for dangerous North Korean mischief. Pyongyang's proliferation activities are especially worrisome. North Korea's apparent nuclear assistance to Syria makes one wonder what other countries – or even more troubling, nonstate actors – might also be beneficiaries of such aid. Living with a nuclear-capable North Korea would be, at the least, a nerve-wracking experience.

There is a final option that deserves consideration. It would amount to inducing (bribing) China to remove Kim Jong Il's regime and install a more pragmatic government in Pyongyang, along with the explicit condition of keeping the country nonnuclear. Part of the bargain also ought to be a commitment from Beijing to promote the reunification of the two Koreas within the next generation. During my visit to China last year, policymakers there professed loyalty to Beijing's longtime ally, but there was also a distinct undertone of exasperation with Pyongyang.

If the price were right, Chinese leaders might be bold enough to topple Kim with a palace coup. But the price would certainly not be cheap. At the least, Beijing would want a commitment from the US to end its military presence on the Korean Peninsula and, probably, to phase out its security alliance with South Korea. In all likelihood, Chinese leaders also would want US concessions on the Taiwan issue.

Those steps might not be easy for US policymakers. But American – and East Asian – leaders must ask themselves whether such sacrifices might be a necessary price to end the North Korean nuclear threat.

In any case, US and East Asian officials need to be thinking about a Plan B now. It is not a prudent strategy simply to hope that the six-party talks will produce an enforceable, effective solution. Given North Korea's record, that is merely the triumph of hope over experience.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, among them "Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America."