North Korea's Pass

Sunday, December 31, 2006

NEARLY 12 WEEKS have passed since the North Korean dictatorship conducted what it said was a nuclear bomb test -- and made explicit the grave threat it poses to global security. At the time the regime of Kim Jong Il appeared to be calculating that it would not suffer severe consequences for its provocation and that the world would eventually accept it as a nuclear power, as India and Pakistan have been accepted. Sadly, that logic is beginning to look justified.

True, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Oct. 14, five days after the test, that condemned the action and applied some sanctions. But China blocked the tougher sanctions proposals, and both Beijing and South Korea have resisted U.S. pressure to enforce the measures rigorously. Three weeks after the test the North agreed under apparent pressure from China to return to the "six-party" negotiations on its nuclear program. But when the talks finally took place earlier this month it turned out the only subject North Korea's representatives were authorized to discuss was unrelated U.S. banking sanctions. The talks ended without result, and no new session has been scheduled.

North Korea's ability to sustain its defiant posture is remarkable because, in contrast to the cases of India or Pakistan, the outside world has the ability to cripple the regime if it chooses. China provides 90 percent of North Korea's oil and most of its food; it also enforces inhumane border controls that prevent brutally repressed and frequently starving North Koreans from fleeing their country. South Korea provides most of the foreign investment in the North. If the two countries were to decide that stopping North Korea from producing more nuclear weapons was more important than preserving its dictatorship, they could remove the lifelines they provide Kim Jong Il. So far, they haven't.

The leverage of the United States is limited. Critics who insist that the Bush administration should conduct bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang not only ignore the extensive one-on-one talks that Ambassador Christopher R. Hill has held with North Korean officials, they also presume that it's possible to change North Korean behavior without the collaboration of its prime benefactors. Some argue that the administration should give up the financial sanctions that froze North Korean accounts in a Macao bank last year and that are now the focus of Pyongyang's demands. Yet it's hard to see why abandoning the scant nonmilitary leverage the United States does possess -- and easing the pressure on North Korea's dollar counterfeiting and drug trafficking -- would make the regime more likely to negotiate seriously about its weapons.

In fact the best option the Bush administration now has is to work with such allies as Japan to raise the economic pressure on North Korea as much as is possible. Diplomacy is best focused not on Pyongyang, but on Beijing -- which needs to be convinced that the stability it says it seeks in Asia, and in its relations with the United States, depends on its willingness to bring real pressure to bear on North Korea. The aim need not be to bring down the regime, only to convince it that its existence will be imperiled rather than secured by nuclear weapons.

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