Responding to North Korea

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

NORTH KOREA'S objective in the aftermath of its reported nuclear test will undoubtedly be to force its neighbors and the world to accept it as an established nuclear power. India and Pakistan succeeded in riding out sanctions and winning acceptance as "strategic partners" of the United States after their bomb tests. Kim Jong Il will try to repeat that history. Whether he succeeds will depend, above all, on the outcome of what we hope will be some serious rethinking by the governments of South Korea and China.

North Korea's neighbors, and not the United States, bear the burden of the North's decision to proceed with what it said was a nuclear explosion -- the small yield raised questions yesterday about whether the test could have been a flop or a fake. Beijing and Seoul have propped up Mr. Kim's despotic regime with heavy subsidies of fuel and food, reasoning that keeping it alive was better than a collapse that could flood their countries with refugees. The underlying logic was that the North's nuclear program was little more than a bargaining chip with the United States and did not pose a genuine military threat.

Both countries have to recalculate now. Is an outlaw dictatorship with nuclear weapons on the border really tolerable? Is the possibility that Japan or Taiwan will respond by building nuclear weapons less of a threat than a tide of refugees? What poses a greater risk of war: the possible collapse of the Kim regime, or an attempt by that regime to use its new weapon either to extort concessions from the South or to achieve its stated goal of conquering the whole Korean Peninsula? Most important: If subsidies and bribes have failed to moderate North Korean behavior over the past few years, is it reasonable to bet that they will do so in the future?

The Bush administration's response to the test should be uncomplicated. It will rightly press hard for new U.N.-sponsored sanctions. It should take any further measures that could increase the pressure on the North or prevent it from exporting its technology. It also should be prepared to talk to Mr. Kim about disarmament in the unlikely event he elects to take up the framework that was agreed on a year ago in the "six-party" negotiations. That agreement promised him substantial economic aid, security guarantees and normal relations with the United States; it's fanciful to suggest that the United States hasn't been forthcoming enough.

In the absence of workable military options, the United States probably cannot force North Korea to give up its bomb, nor can the United States overturn the regime. The real leverage lies with South Korea and China. Without their continued material support, and their insistence on shutting their borders to the North's desperate people, the Kim regime could not survive for long. Beijing and Seoul have said they would not accept the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In fact, they do not have to. They do, however, have to choose between two unpleasant options: accepting a North Korean nuclear weapon or risking the "instability" in the North that they have tried so hard to prevent.


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