Eight years before the Bush administration issued its national security strategy espousing a doctrine of preemption, the United States came to the brink of initiating war to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. Faced with Pyongyang's threat to divert plutonium from a nuclear reactor to its weapons program, the Clinton administration contemplated its own act of preemption against the strange, isolated regime then considered the greatest threat to U.S. national security. The two of us, then at the Pentagon, readied plans for striking at North Korea's nuclear facilities and for mobilizing hundreds of thousands of American troops for the war that probably would have followed.
That crisis ended with a negotiated agreement, and the latest episode could, too. In the face of this month's revelation by North Korea that it had begun a second nuclear weapons program based on uranium, the Bush administration has rightly concluded that it should respond with deliberation and, initially, diplomacy.
The reason for a measured approach to North Korea is not that it poses less danger than Iraq. In fact, North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be at least as serious and just as intolerable. The military situation in Korea, and U.S. interests and allies in the region, are just as vital as those in the Persian Gulf. And with North Korea we face many of the same dilemmas as we do with Iraq: an absence of trust and transparency, combined with weapons know-how that seems capable of rising above each country's otherwise dismal state of development.
But the relatively slow pace of North Korea's nuclear programs makes it possible -- and advisable -- to take the time for a diplomatic approach. And, unlike with Saddam Hussein, previous experience indicates that firm diplomacy can forestall the North from realizing its nuclear ambitions. Remembering those days should remind us of the trade-offs the Bush administration should be weighing now.
The two of us spent much of the first half of 1994 preparing for war on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea had ejected the international inspectors at its nuclear reactor facility at Yongbyon and began steps that would have led in a few months to the extraction of enough plutonium to build about six nuclear bombs. Such a development would have created unacceptable dangers to the region and to our own security. Consequently, we readied a detailed plan to attack the Yongbyon facility with precision-guided bombs. We were highly confident that it could be destroyed without causing a meltdown that would release radioactivity into the air. The plutonium would be entombed, and the special buildings nearby designed to reprocess the reactor fuel into bomb material would also be leveled.
But a strike on Yongbyon, while surgical in and of itself, would hardly be surgical in its overall effect. The likely result of such a strike would be a spasmodic lashing out by North Korea's antiquated, but large and fanatical, military across the DMZ separating North Korea from South Korea, our ally. North Korea deploys more than 1 million soldiers near the DMZ, and its 11,000 long-range artillery pieces hidden nearby could rain destruction on the South Korean capital of Seoul, only 40 miles away.
In the event of a North Korean attack, U.S. forces, working side by side with the South Korean army and using bases in Japan, would quickly destroy the North Korean army and the North Korean regime. But unlike Desert Storm, which was waged in the Arabian desert, the combat in another Korean War would take place in Seoul's crowded suburbs. While our war planners estimated that U.S. and South Korean forces would contain the North Korean advance north of Seoul, the price of defense would be heavy. Thousands of U.S. troops and tens of thousands of South Korean troops would be killed, and millions of refugees would crowd the highways. North Korean losses would be even higher. The intensity of combat would be greater than any the world has witnessed since the last Korean War.
Since we fully understood the dangers of a war with North Korea, we proceeded in a manner that would avoid that war, if possible. But we believed that the nuclear program on which North Korea was embarked was even more dangerous, and were prepared to risk a war to stop it. As we entered into negotiations to shut down Yongbyon, we made our willingness to use military force crystal clear to the North Koreans by positioning forces to strike Yongbyon and reinforcing our military units that were deployed to defend South Korea against an onslaught from the north.
Fortunately, war was avoided in 1994 by the exercise of that diplomacy, which resulted in the so-called Agreed Framework. While sometimes maligned on both sides today, the agreement had some concrete achievements. Under the agreement, North Korea pledged to store the unprocessed plutonium at Yongbyon under the direct on-site verification of U.S. and international inspectors. That has been done. North Korea also pledged to eventually send the plutonium out of the country and destroy the Yongbyon complex altogether. In return, the United States and its allies agreed to provide North Korea with fuel oil and, eventually, two Western-style nuclear power reactors whose fuel would be under international control. The agreement was (and still is) controversial, and is well behind schedule, with construction of the reactors not yet substantially started. Both parties have complained about the Agreed Framework but have essentially abided by its terms. Its results have served our security interests well: In the absence of the pact, the Yongbyon facility could have produced enough plutonium to make more than 50 nuclear bombs by now.
Today we are confronted with another nuclear challenge from North Korea -- not from the Yongbyon facility but from a separate program, which is designed to produce enriched uranium rather than plutonium for use in making a nuclear bomb. Today, just as in 1994, a conventional war would be incredibly dangerous, but not as dangerous as allowing North Korea to proceed with this new program. The United States was not willing to tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea in 1994, and was prepared to risk war to avoid such an outcome. The reasons, powerful then, are even more powerful now.
First, the Korean War of a half-century ago ended with an armistice, not a true peace. North Korean forces continue to threaten South Korea. North Korean aggression is deterred by a strong combined force of U.S. and South Korean forces that the North cannot hope to defeat. If North Korea got nuclear weapons, it might imagine that it could scare or chase away South Korea's defenders. Deterrence, which has been strong on both sides, could be undermined and war made more likely.
Second, a nuclear North Korea could very well set in motion a domino proliferation effect in East Asia. The United States has successfully persuaded South Korea to forgo nuclear weapons on the grounds that North Korea has none, and with the United States as an ally the South does not need nukes for its defense. That argument could be undermined by a North Korean bomb. The next dominoes to fall might be Japan and Taiwan.
Third, the example of North Korea -- a small, impoverished communist state -- going nuclear would erode the basis of the global nonproliferation regime.
Finally, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 make clear that if nuclear weapons are controlled by a country enmeshed in social and political turmoil, they might end up commandeered, bought or stolen by terrorists. Who knows what might happen to North Korea's nuclear weapons as that state struggles to achieve a transformation, possibly violent, to a more normal and prosperous nation.
Once nuclear weapons materials are made -- either plutonium or enriched uranium -- they are exceedingly difficult to find and eliminate. They last for thousands of years. There is no secret about how to fashion them into bombs. They can fall into the hands of unstable nations or terrorists for whom Cold War deterrence is a dubious shield indeed. These facts describe America's -- and the world's -- dominant security problem for the foreseeable future. It is of the utmost importance to prevent the production of nuclear materials in the first place. Therefore the main strategy for dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons must be preventive. Our most successful prevention programs (such as the Nunn-Lugar program) have been done in cooperation with other nations, but in exceptional cases it may be necessary to resort to the threat of military force to prevent nuclear threats from maturing.
As in 1994, North Korea now needs to proceed with the understanding that the United States would not tolerate a North Korean program to build nuclear weapons. And as in 1994, the United States needs to proceed from the understanding that the plutonium at Yongbyon could be reprocessed quickly. That store of unprocessed plutonium still presents a serious near-term threat because it could be converted to weapons in a matter of a few months. The Yongbyon reactor could produce plutonium for even more weapons in the years ahead. Thus we need to keep the Agreed Framework in place while we explore the full range of solutions.
Unlike the plutonium program, however, the uranium program upon which North Korea has now embarked is a slower path to nuclear weapons because it produces bomb material gradually and in small portions. It will take some time to accumulate enough uranium to replicate the nuclear potential of Yongbyon's plutonium, which remains the greatest immediate threat.
Thus there is time to explore a full range of solutions, and the Bush administration and our allies in the region can and should take the time to do so. The challenge is formidable: to remove the threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea without going to war. The United States has met comparable challenges in the past -- in Cuba in 1962, and in North Korea in 1994. And as in those cases, the two ingredients of a possible solution must be the credibility of our determination to remove the nuclear threat even if it means war, and the patience to pursue -- creatively and tenaciously -- diplomatic alternatives.