Every option the United States faces in resolving our nuclear dispute with North Korea is a horrible choice—but some are more horrible than others.
We face four nightmare options: (1) Do nothing, (2) Try to destroy North Korean nuclear facilities and weapons of mass destruction, (3) Impose economic sanctions and international pressure on North Korea, (4) Seek a negotiated settlement that would require compromises by both sides.
Option one: Doing nothing would end the current crisis, but it would allow North Korea to keep its nuclear capabilities and develop new ones. Supporters of this approach argue that North Korea would never use nuclear weapons for fear of awesome U.S. retaliation. This may be true today, but not if North Korea's leaders sensed that the survival of their regime was imperiled.
A small nuclear weapon like the one or two that North Korea may already possess could cause damage similar to the atomic bomb we dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, which devastated the city and left some 70,000 dead and 75,000 injured. South Korea's capital of Seoul is by far the most logical target within the limited range of North Korea's No Dong missile. But North Korea is also developing ICBMs that could reach the United States. And, unfortunately, nuclear weapons can be smuggled across national borders.
Moreover, allowing North Korean atomic weapon development would set an unacceptable precedent for nuclear proliferation. And faced with a growing North Korean nuclear arsenal, an ally like Japan would be driven to develop its own nuclear weapons. Even worse, North Korea has sold many major military technologies it has developed—and might well do the same with nuclear weapons. Do we really want to give al-Qaeda the chance to buy atomic bombs?
Option two: If we choose the option of attacking North Korean nuclear production capabilities—as President Clinton apparently considered in 1994—we would likely cause substantial collateral damage and radioactive fallout that could drift over South Korea, Japan or China. We may be unable to locate all North Korean nuclear weapons for attacks. North Korea might then feel compelled to use the remainder before losing them. And of course, any military attack on North Korea might also kick off North Korean retaliatory attacks or a wider war. This could put China in the difficult position of choosing sides.
Option three: Sanctions and international pressure, especially if coordinated among the United States, Japan, China and Russia, could press North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. But North Korea is already isolated and hard-pressed. Sanctions could push North Korean leaders to the point where they feared for the survival of their regime—leading the North to possibly invade South Korea and even use its nuclear weapons.
Some favor this option hoping that the North Korean regime will collapse without war, leading to prompt Korean unification. An unstable successor regime in Pyongyang, or a division of North Korea into factions fighting a civil war, are more likely outcomes.
Option four: The final option of a negotiated settlement would have North Korea agree to give up its nuclear weapons program and perhaps other weapons of mass destruction programs. In return, the North Koreans could get an international pledge that no country would attack them, and that other nations would work to provide desperately needed food and energy assistance. This assistance would allow the North Korean regime to survive and most likely claim victory and would benefit the people of that nation.
The United States is understandably reluctant to make concessions to negotiate for such an outcome—not wanting to appear to be rewarding bad behavior by North Korea. We are also reluctant to appear to be guaranteeing the survival of the Kim Jong Il dictatorship, which is clearly hostile to American values of democracy and individual freedom.
And such a negotiated settlement may not even be achievable. North Korea knows that the only form of power it has is military power and that nuclear weapons are key to that power. In the North Korean view, nuclear weapons are necessary to deter South Korean and U.S. attacks. North Korea would likely insist that any agreement allow it to retain at least some weapons of mass destruction for self-defense. For the United States, this insistence could be a deal killer.
If a negotiated agreement is eventually reached with North Korea, we must also expect that North Korea will try to cheat on the agreement. And, the North Koreans might expect us to not fulfill our commitments. In structuring a negotiated settlement, both sides would have to insert automatic forms of sanction into the agreement that would punish any violator—the United States as well as North Korea.
For two years, the United States has debated these four nightmare options, and appears to be moving in the direction of a negotiated settlement. Still, a lot of work is needed to formulate a mutually acceptable agreement with North Korea. This should be pursued with vigor. If such an agreement can be achieved against the odds, it will provide the safest means of resolving the current crisis—the least horrible choice we face.
Bennett is a senior policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit organization that helps to improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on January 14, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.