NORTH Korea, ruled since 1945 by hard-line Communist dictator Kim Il Sung, is intent on developing nuclear weapons. Should the North acquire these weapons, stability on the Korean peninsula will be threatened. Any conflict would directly involve the 36,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. Japan and South Korea would come under pressure to acquire their own nuclear weapons. United States efforts to stop Iraq, Iran, and other states from getting nuclear weapons would suffer a serious setback.
Last March, North Korea announced its intent to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the centerpiece of global efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. North Korea has since blocked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from inspecting its nuclear sites. The IAEA's ability to safeguard and monitor North Korea's nuclear activities has deteriorated. If that monitoring capability is lost, the IAEA will likely ask the United Nations Security Council to impose economic sanctions against North Korea.
Security and stability in northeast Asia are high priorities for the US. Our policy objectives are straightforward. We want North Korea to comply fully with its obligations as a signatory to the NPT, which means relinquishing any nuclear weapons; to permit the IAEA to carry out periodic and unhampered inspections of all known nuclear facilities and other sites that the IAEA suspects of having nuclear purposes; and to engage South Korea in a meaningful dialogue to ease tensions on the peninsula. Some government experts believe that North Korea has already developed one or two nuclear weapons. Other government analysts are more cautious. Because we do not know the facts, we must push hard for IAEA inspections.
The US recently persuaded the North to permit the IAEA, on a one-time basis, to inspect its seven declared nuclear facilities. But North Korea may now be backing away from this agreement.
Even if this agreement is implemented, much more remains to be done. The US should insist that North Korea open all facilities to regular inspection. The US should press North Korea to resume its dialogue with South Korea. Finally, North Korea should be required to place all its weapons-grade nuclear material under international control, as South Africa has done.
We have made some progress in talks - though not nearly enough. If North Korea permits IAEA inspection of its seven declared nuclear facilities, the administration may respond by canceling this year's joint US-South Korea military exercises.
If - and only if - progress is made on all other issues, the US should consider lifting some restrictions on North Korea's diplomats in New York, fostering nongovernmental exchanges, easing the US trade embargo, and moving toward normal diplomatic relations.
But if negotiations fail, the US should turn up the pressure, working with our friends and allies to impose UN Security Council economic sanctions on North Korea. Economic sanctions will not be effective unless North Korea's neighbors enforce them. China, one of North Korea's chief trading partners, now opposes sanctions. Japan and South Korea, which are most threatened by a North Korea nuclear program, want to continue negotiating and are reluctant to impose sanctions.
Some have called for military measures against North Korea. But we can't be certain where, or how deeply underground, it has stored its nuclear-weapons materials. Six weeks of intense bombing during the Gulf war did not eliminate Iraq's nuclear weapons program. A preemptive strike against North Korea is not likely to do better. Seoul, with a population of 11 million people, is only a half-hour's drive south of the demilitarized zone. The US must be careful not to touch off a war or nuclear catastrophe in Korea that could claim thousands of lives - Americans among them.
Recently, the US has stepped up intelligence operations in the Korean peninsula and may deploy Patriot missiles in South Korea to defend against possible attacks from the North. Other options are to reinforce US troop levels in the South, reintroduce US tactical nuclear weapons, and increase political and military pressure against the North.
Military measures must not be ruled out. But for now we should rely primarily on diplomatic pressure and incentives, making sure we have exhausted the negotiating track before taking stronger military measures.
The US should not back down in this standoff. We should continue to pursue firm, if slow, diplomacy. But patience has limits. If diplomacy fails, UN economic sanctions are the next step for pressing North Korea to allow full IAEA access to all nuclear facilities. Sticking with diplomacy now will later gain support from other countries for sanctions, if they are needed. We should try to bring North Korea into the family of nations, but only if it meets the conditions of membership.