Has North Korea been cowed by the US show of force in Iraq? At first, it seemed that way. The provocative actions and hostile rhetoric coming out of that country had hit a level not seen in years. Then the provocations stopped for a while, just as the Iraq war started. The South Korean president has said our Iraq victory has "petrified" the North.
It appears our victory - together with diplomatic pressure from China - prompted North Korea to warm up to the idea of holding multilateral talks rather than bilateral talks with the US. But last week, it indicated it may have begun to separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods. If true, that means the country could have atomic bombs within a matter of months.
This could be 1994 all over again, but worse. That year, North Korea was about to start reprocessing the fuel rods, which so alarmed to the Clinton administration that it was going to impose UN Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang and build up the US military presence in and around the Korean peninsula. Lured by the prospect of aid, North Korea decided not to reprocess its fuel rods, so the sanctions and military build-up never occurred.
If North Korea has in fact gone ahead with the fuel-rod reprocessing, then it is time to impose those sanctions and carry out that military build-up. The Clinton administration was ready to do it, and now it is up to the Bush administration to do so.
Nine years of carrots for North Korea never worked, as demonstrated by the secret uranium enrichment program that was revealed in October. Some say the economic aid was successful in slowing North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but this is like saying someone is a little pregnant.
The obvious goal is to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and readmit inspectors. That is an immensely difficult proposition. Inspections would have to be extraordinarily intrusive given North Korea's well-known propensity to cheat. On top of that is the issue of chemical and biological weapons, which could be exported to rogue regimes and terrorists.
There is a chance that multilateral negotiations - if they go forward - could even worsen the situation. The US likely would come under pressure from the other participating countries to give economic aid to North Korea in return for readmitting nuclear inspectors. Such a move would send the message that nuclear blackmail is acceptable and even profitable for rogue regimes.
With the possible exception of food for famine relief, the US must never give aid - and certainly not nuclear power plants - to North Korea unless it radically changes its political and economic system. During the 1990s, the US got into the perverse position of replacing the Soviet Union as North Korea's benefactor. If we give no aid and trade to Cuba, we certainly should not do so to North Korea.
Meanwhile, we should devote more diplomatic resources to cultivating our relationship with China, since that country holds so much clout with North Korea. In 1994, according to Don Oberdorfer's book "The Two Koreas", China was instrumental in getting Pyongyang to back down on the nuclear issue.
If diplomacy fails, the US must be ready. Drastically increase the number of Patriot missiles near the demilitarized zone. With enough of them, perhaps much of Seoul could be spared from a barrage from the North. Congress ought to allocate more money for the development of laser-based missile defense as well, a promising technology that someday could be deployed in South Korea. And more resources should be shifted to the missile defense of Japan, the United States, and other countries.
North Korea is notorious for selling weapons to other rogue regimes. To try to prevent it from exporting nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, we should attempt to inspect suspect ships leaving that country.
There are only two favorable scenarios for the North Korea situation: either the regime collapses from internal pressure, or it undertakes something similar to the Soviet Union's glasnost and perestroika. We can do little to bring about the first scenario, but we must encourage the second. Only in this context should we ever engage in bilateral discourse with North Korea. It should be more of a one-way discourse, in which we would tell them how to open their economy and society in order to eventually join the world community - and hopefully someday become a peace-loving economic powerhouse like South Korea. While we should never provide aid and trade until the North makes meaningful reforms, we could offer to send in technical advisers. Don't give Pyongyang any fish, but teach it how to fish.
It is a long shot, but worth trying. Kim Jong Il, who took some feeble steps last year to open his economy, may even be interested. Meanwhile, if that does not work, let us keep making deft use of the stick.
Patrick Chisholm is a principal writer and editor at PolicyComm, a consulting firm. He has a master's degree in international affairs/international economics from American University. He can be reached at email@example.com.