THE prospect that North Korea may become a nuclear power, albeit a small one, has caused great concern in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. Beijing and Moscow also are unsettled by it. Although the intensity of the controversy has declined in recent weeks, the basic problem still remains unresolved: What can be done to defuse the dilemma posed by one state threatening to loose a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia?
It is important to understand the background of North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear option. As long as the inter-Korean strategic situation was in rough, cold-war equilibrium, Pyongyang enjoyed the luxury of being an international "bad boy" ultimately protected by the support network of the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China.
The end of the cold war, dissolution of the Soviet Union, and economic reforms in Russia and China effectively knocked the international props out from under North Korea, compounding its domestic economic and political problems.
It was no longer just a renegade Stalinist state, it was an anachronistic one whose ideological base had been discredited at the fount of Marxism-Leninism. And its arch-rival was riding high. South Korea's economic success, international respectability, and strategic viability as part of the winning coalition in the cold war were peaking precisely as Pyongyang was plumbing its nadir. In that context, exploring the nuclear option makes considerable sense.
It remains unclear just how viable that option may be. Whether the regime of President Kim Il Sung actually can produce usable nuclear weapons in sufficient numbers to be credible is a question that has preoccupied many people lately. But it may be an irrelevant question.
If one assumes that United States deterrent capabilities almost certainly make any North Korean nuclear weapons that could be targeted on South Korea or Japan functionally unusable, their quality and/or quantity matter much less than their potential or actual existence. For North Korea, having a nuclear option in some stage of development is primarily a means to an end: reestablishing a level of deterrence and stability that was seriously undermined by the end of the global cold war. By playing hard ball
on the nuclear issue, North Korea already has regained a large measure of the sort of perverse "respect" it requires from South Korea and its supporters for survival.
Were North Korea otherwise strong and stable, this new form of a power balance might be satisfactory for all concerned. Despite the anxiety expressed by other players in the game, especially American opponents of nuclear proliferation, they almost certainly could learn to live with a new post-cold-war equilibrium around the Korean peninsula. Once proliferation had occurred, it could readily become the source of a new form of stability.
Of course, all else is not well with North Korea. Economically it is hard pressed, weakened by the transformation of its former support network, and being pushed by heavy defense burdens toward the same precipice that the Soviet Union toppled over. A bankrupting defense budget is likely a key reason that a nuclear option appeals to Pyongyang; it is cheaper to sustain.
Politically, North Korea faces great uncertainty. No one can be sure how the dynastic succession now under way in Pyongyang from the elder Kim to his 50-year-old son, Kim Jong Il, will turn out. Aggravating the situation, the Asia-Pacific region's dynamism militarily is leaving North Korea in its dust. Pyongyang shows signs that it recognizes it must somehow adapt to the intra-Asian trend or risk the acceleration of its collapse. These factors do not auger well for the emergence of a post-cold-war equili brium based in part on a cornered, nuclear-armed North Korea.
It is important that the US come to terms with North Korea's nuclear option in a different manner. Whether Pyongyang is engaged in a nuclear program or the US and South Korea merely think it is doesn't matter. Preparing to deal with the present or future reality of a North Korean nuclear bomb through a system of deterrence that probably will be shaken by both internal North Korean and intra-Asian developments is as disturbing a notion as the idea of a North Korean nuclear bomb, per se.
Neither Americans, South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, nor Russians can afford to be comfortable with the prospect of an economically and politically unstable North Korean state that may, or does, have nuclear weapons. As serious as those weapons may seem, it is the instability of the Pyongyang regime that is the greater threat. Consequently, it is time for the US to modify its policy toward Korea as a whole.
US policy now stresses its ties with South Korea and steadfastness versus North Korea. Pyongyang's nuclear option has strengthened US resolve in that support. While admirable, it misses a crucial point: Both the US and South Korea need to do everything they can to induce positive change in North Korea, and they are permitting their alliance to get in the way of the larger purpose - fostering peace on the peninsula that will bring the Korean nation together again.
At the risk of appearing to play into North Korea's hands, the US should become far more active than it has been in creating a US-North Korean dialogue openly aimed at eventual diplomatic recognition and economic interaction in exchange for step-by-step North Korean positive responses to US nuclear concerns.
These are the ends North Korea clearly desires as steps toward disrupting US-South Korea ties. As long as both Seoul and Washington are confident that their bilateral relations are sound there is no genuine risk in pursuing the suggested course. And Washington should be far more assertive than it has been, or than Seoul has wanted it to be, with regard to initiatives aimed at facilitating Korean unification.
In the past, Seoul frequently objected to even the idea of Washington exploring options toward North Korea that South Korea had not already sanctioned. Today, however, Seoul generally encourages Washington to be more creative. The time is right for American boldness. The US helped to create Korea's current problems by its incremental exacerbation of a poor decision (i.e., Korea's original division) that worsened the cold war. Today the US should accept its moral obligation to help end Korea's cold war by
striving enthusiastically to reunify Korea.
Were the US to move simultaneously toward a quid-pro-quo-based negotiation of diplomatic relations with North Korea and a more innovative approach to Korean unification, it would be well positioned to resolve the Korean nuclear dilemma and to terminate the Korean cold war by removing the underlying cause.