North Korea apparently has joined the world’s nuclear club. There’s still a chance of persuading the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to give up nuclear weapons — thus, the resumption of six-party talks Saturday in Beijing is a welcome development. But Pyongyang routinely disappoints even the most minimal international expectations, and the closer the DPRK gets to developing nuclear weapons, the less likely the Kim Jong-il regime is to disarm.
The best hope of success is convincing China to place significant pressure on the North. The best hope of enlisting China’s full assistance is to share Washington’s nuclear nightmare.
Today Beijing more fears a North Korean economic collapse than a North Korean nuclear arsenal. The U.S. needs to change China’s priorities. Doing so won’t be easy — the People’s Republic of China worries that a DPRK collapse would generate a flood of North Korean refugees and yield a united Korea allied with America on Beijing’s border.
But there is something that the PRC might fear more. The U.S. should privately indicate that it will not discourage South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan from following the DPRK if the latter develops nuclear weapons. Washington need not provide assistance or even endorse such a development, but simply step back and allow events to follow their natural course. The thought of a Japanese bomb would especially catch China’s attention.
Obviously, the prospect of serial proliferation would be as unsettling to the U.S. as to the region. However, the North’s activities may well leave proliferation among America’s democratic allies as the best of several bad options.
Says President Bush, “I think the less nuclear armament in the Far East, the better off the world will be.” Actually, neither the U.S. nor “the world” will be better off if the only three East Asian powers with nuclear weapons are North Korea, a xenophobic Stalinist dictatorship; China, a nationalistic authoritarian communist state; and Russia, an increasingly authoritarian former communist power. Nor would it be in America’s interest, whatever “the world” thinks, to risk Los Angeles to protect Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo.
In any case, the U.S. need only say loudly and publicly that it will not discourage its friends from going nuclear. Washington could later change its mind. Today, however, it is important for the DPRK and, more importantly, China, to believe that North Korea’s course risks unpredictable and potentially far-reaching geopolitical consequences.
Unfortunately, neither the U.S. nor its allies apparently have ever played international poker. President Bush pledged: “the United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range — and I underscore the full range — of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan.” When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Japan in late October, she reaffirmed Washington’s promise to protect that nation.
Similarly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently said of nuclear weapons: “That debate is finished.” In response to Secretary Rice, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso declared: “The government is absolutely not considering a need to be armed by nuclear weapons.” He added, “We do not need to acquire nuclear arms with the assurance by Secretary Rice that the bilateral alliance would work without fault.”
After the North Korean nuclear test, the Republic of Korea complained that the test might provide Japan with a “pretext” of going nuclear. At the same time, Seoul demanded the same kind of American guarantee that the president offered Tokyo.
“Due to public anxiety, I have stressed the need for a nuclear umbrella from the U.S.,” South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung told the ROK National Assembly. He added that he intended to ask Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for a detailed and firm commitment.
Whatever the justification for private understandings between Washington and both Japan and South Korea, it makes no sense to publicly reaffirm America’s nuclear guarantee. Doing so will not turn Pyongyang from its present course; to the contrary, the DPRK’s recognition that it is confronting the U.S. when it deals with the South and Tokyo increases the North’s incentive to develop nuclear weapons.
Equally important, promising to maintain a nuclear umbrella over Seoul and Tokyo discourages them from going nuclear. That obviously minimizes the consequence of North Korea’s nuclear program that is most likely to worry Beijing.
Even with a new round of six-party talks, resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis peacefully requires greater Chinese assistance. To convince the PRC to do everything that it can, America must convince Beijing that it, too, would lose from a DPRK bomb. But time is growing short. The Bush administration and its allies need to relearn the practice of diplomacy, including the art of bluffing.
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