SANTA MONICA, CALIF. - Responding to China's overtures, North Korea has just agreed to a new round of multilateral talks on its claimed nuclear-weapons program. It is the nature of the North Korean regime itself, though, not the weapons program, that is the underlying cause of tension on the Korean peninsula.
The peninsula will never be truly politically and economically stable until there is radical change in the government of North Korea, either through unprecedented internal reform and opening, or through collapse of the regime. A government as isolated, economically backward, and repressive as North Korea's cannot exist peacefully in the modern world.
Because Kim Jong Il's government has no mandate and no legitimacy, it will always and necessarily act in unpredictable, destabilizing ways to preserve its own power.
But we must separate our short-term needs from the long-term vision. To resolve the immediate problem of the North's nuclear program, diplomacy is the only path, and the US should pursue it wholeheartedly, despite its inherent messiness and difficulty. Though a breakthrough at the next round of talks should not be expected, negotiations with North Korea can work because each side clearly wants something. The North Koreans want aid and a security guarantee; the US, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and Australia are united in demanding a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. Reaching a compromise will not be easy, but it is far from impossible.
If talks fail to produce visible progress, there are some inside (and outside) the Bush administration who will renew their calls for a strategy of economic pressures instead of diplomacy. They have argued that a better government in North Korea is the right goal, and that measures the United States can take to hasten that end are all to the good. They advocate a short-term strategy of increased economic pressures—such as drug-sale interdictions recently carried out by Australia to stop illegal sources of cash, inspections of North Korean ships for illegal weapons by Japan, and even some form of blockade—that fits a broader strategy of isolating and undermining the government in Pyongyang.
This approach confuses the short- and long-term problems. As a complement to sincere, rigorous and determined diplomacy, such economic measures can demonstrate that the US and its partners are very serious and that the consequences of not reaching a deal will be severe. But without continuing talks, ratcheting up economic pressure would dangerously compromise our urgent short-term goal of halting North Korea's nascent nuclear program.
South Korea and China are unlikely to agree to using economic pressure on the North without a diplomatic counterpoint, and these two nations must agree for the plan to work. China supplies more than 70 percent of the North's fuel, and China and South Korea both send food and other needed goods.
For South Korea and China, a gradual, peaceful reunification of the two Koreas through increased engagement is the favored course. Reunification will pose a huge economic burden for South Korea that will only increase if it is not carefully orchestrated over a long period. Similarly, China has to worry about precipitating a refugee crisis.
Moreover, Chinese and South Koreans have asserted, economic pressure is unlikely to have the desired effect of forcing the North to end its weapons program. Juche, or self-reliance, is the proclaimed national ideology, and North Korea has survived under dire economic conditions for decades. If anything, South Korea and China argue, economic pressure will only serve to harden the North's position that it must have a nuclear weapons program to protect it from hostile forces.
The second problem with the strategy of an economic squeeze is that we do not have time to wait for it to work. Adding to the urgency is recent intelligence from South Korea suggesting there may be a second site other than Yongbyon at which North Korea is reprocessing spent fuel rods. If the US does not halt the North's nuclear program in the short term, it will also compromise the long-term goal of a stable, secure peninsula. If North Korea's program continues unabated, it could have between four and 20 nuclear weapons by the end of the year and the ability to build perhaps four to six a year within two years.
With a full-blown nuclear program, the regime in Pyongyang could sustain itself by selling nukes—to terrorist groups in the worst-case scenario. A nuclear North Korea could also spark a new arms race in East Asia. And no matter how we wish it to be otherwise, a nuclear-weapons program would give North Korea a perverse stature. Moreover, such a program would make securing nuclear materials after reunification greatly more challenging, as Russia watchers well know.
A better government in Pyongyang is a long-term vision. Stopping North Korea's nuclear program is a short-term necessity. Without rigorous and sustained diplomatic engagement, the chances are slim that we will achieve that necessary goal.
Nina Hachigian is director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at The RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on August 7, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.