The greatest challenge to U.S. security and world stability today is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The most dangerous and immediate expression of that global threat now stares at American forces across the frozen landscape of the Korean DMZ.
There can be no serious doubt that our vital national interests are imperiled by North Korea’s nuclear program and the war they have threatened to protect it. If North Korea possesses or soon obtains nuclear weapons, the threat that it poses to the region will multiply exponentially, as will proliferation in Asia. If war comes, Americans will die.
Every action taken in Washington should reaffirm to Kim Il Sung that the price of North Korea’s lawlessness and belligerency is too great for even the most inhumane regime to endure. But the Clinton Administration’s response to this crisis has focused on only one narrow part of the threat, the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, signaling an accommodationist mentality that may do as little to prevent war as it will to prevent proliferation.
The Administration’s efforts have been aimed at securing North Korea’s agreement to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to maintain recording devices at Yongbyon that will reduce the likelihood that the reactor will be used to produce plutonium.
For the sake of that agreement, the Administration has shown a willingness to bargain with North Korea separately from South Korea. It has issued vague promises about normal relations and economic assistance, while broadly hinting at our willingness to cancel military training exercises with our South Korean allies.
Recent reports of U.S. intelligence conclusions that North Korea has extracted enough plutonium from its reactors to build two bombs have further aggravated the crisis while U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng counsel continued accommodation of North Korean priorities.
North Korea’s recent consideration of full access to Yongbyon, following its earlier offer of limited access to five facilities, was hailed as a “breakthrough” in some quarters. It is less than that. The offer will not affect North Korea’s probable possession of 12 kilograms of plutonium. It is also unclear whether the IAEA can provide absolute assurances that the Yongbyon reactor does not have concealed chambers to produce additional small amounts of plutonium in ways that normal inspections will not detect.
The Administration has yet to address the possibility that North Korea may have other nuclear facilities, and other means to obtain nuclear material beyond those currently in question, such as centrifuges, calutrons or chemical separation. As we belatedly discovered in Iraq, these means of producing fissionable material are harder to detect.
The Administration’s own large-scale relaxation of export controls on computers, satellites, space launch vehicles and telecommunications technology may be helping North Korea find other ways to proliferate.
The Administration has not indicated concern about North Korean, Chinese, Iranian and Syrian cooperation to produce long-range missiles; North Korea’s sale of SCUD missiles to Iran and Syria, and North Korea’s development and transfer of the No Dong 1 missile that may soon threaten Japan, Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as South Korea.
Experts have estimated North Korea’s current stockpile of biological and chemical weapons at 250 tons, with 13,000 troops trained to use them. North Korea has armed its SCUD missiles with chemical warheads, and we do not have Patriot batteries in place to protect our forces from their use.
Canceling military exercises with our South Korean allies is quite possibly the worst signal the United States could send to an increasingly bellicose North Korea, indicating in advance to North Korea the profits to be realized in proliferation and saber rattling.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the North Korean army has increased its tank force by 40% and its artillery pieces by 50%. Much of the North’s 1.2 million-man army is massed on the border, with combat-ready units poised for attack at strategic locations.
Now is the time for the Administration to reverse its image abroad as vacillating and insecure. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by being frightened into appeasement for the sake of a single concession, which in the end may not matter very much. The North Koreans are testing our resolve. Let us make certain they understand how grave are the consequences of their unlawful ambitions.
We should emphatically make clear that we do not rule out any potential response to North Korea’s continued intransigence over the Yongbyon reactor, including a military response. We should insist that North Korea discontinue its nuclear weapons programs immediately and that it open its other nuclear-related facilities to international inspection.
The United States should begin devoting its energies to building an international consensus to further economically isolate North Korea. Our diplomacy should be conducted with forceful representations of our seriousness. Cooperation should not be delicately asked of other nations, it should be compelled.
To make sanctions effective against the insular economy of North Korea, President Clinton must insist on full cooperation from China--now. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has dismissed Li Peng’s recent reiteration of Chinese opposition to sanctions as something less than China’s final word on the subject. The secretary should focus his immediate efforts on making certain that China’s next pronouncement on the subject proves his current optimism to be well-founded.
We should put the case plainly to China: All benefits derived from its relationship with the United States--from most-favored-nation trade status to licenses for the transfer of supercomputers and satellite technology--will be directly connected to China’s full implementation of sanctions, should they prove necessary, and its central involvement in efforts to prevent North Korean proliferation and aggression.
The United States should begin making all the force improvements necessary to enhance our conventional and rapid deployment capabilities in South Korea. Our forces should be fully ready to repel aggression irrespective of whether North Korea’s bellicosity is real or contrived to intimidate American diplomacy. Joint military exercises are a necessary determinant of our readiness. Finally, we should make unambiguously clear to Pyongyang that any use of weapons of mass destruction against South Korea will be met with greater retaliation in kind.
To paraphrase Churchill, let it not be said one day that in a definitive crisis, the United States faced a choice between accommodation and the prospect of war; that we chose accommodation first and got war later.
John McCain (R-Ariz.) is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was a Navy fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and spent five years as a POW in Hanoi.