Accept Nuclear Reality on the Korean Peninsula

Bennett Ramberg was in the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs in 1989 and 1990 and is the author of several books on international strategic issues. E-mail: bennett

Rather than lament how we could have or should have dealt with North Korea’s nuclear-weapons ambitions -- or debate how to stop its ongoing program -- it’s time to fashion a strategy that copes with the fact that the North is a nuclear-weapons state.

We delude ourselves if we believe that we can reverse what is irreversible. We have neither the economic clout nor the diplomatic clout.

Certainly, no paper agreement with North Korea will eliminate its nuclear program. Furthermore, military action against Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities is out of the question due to the radiological consequences and the major war that would ensue and envelop South Korea. Were we to accept these realities, we could then focus our attention more productively on a strategy that would reduce the risks.


Despite much anguish over the turn of events, history provides confidence that we can -- albeit with an occasional tremor -- deal with nuclear-armed communist states. Our Cold War nuclear relationships with the Soviet Union and China, whose domestic and international politics at times were even more odious than the North’s, make the point.

A nuclear North Korea presents three challenges: preventing weapons use, preventing conveyance of nuclear materials or weapons to third countries and terrorists, and hindering other nations from following North Korea’s defection from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Preventing Pyongyang from using nuclear weapons may be the easiest of the difficult challenges to overcome. The strategy: military deterrence coupled with the capability to destroy, with certainty, the North Korean regime by any means necessary in the event the North attacks the South.

Yes, Kim Jong Il is unpredictable. But despite the regime’s bluster, Pyongyang clearly understands this long-standing U.S. policy, and, over the decades, has been deterred from serious military operations against Seoul.

There is a caveat. Nuclear war still could take place by inadvertence.

Take, for example, an intelligence failure. The North might believe, mistakenly, that the United States intended to preempt its nuclear capability, forcing it into a quandary: either use its nuclear arsenal or lose it.

Another concern is the potential inability of the North’s leadership to exercise command and control over its nuclear forces in a crisis, resulting in a decision by a local commander to launch a nuclear strike.

We should implement several measures to reduce these risks. First, negotiate a crisis hotline with the North. Such an emergency communications network with the Soviet Union during the Cold War served to reduce tensions.

Second, provide the North with low-resolution satellite intelligence of the entire Korean peninsula as a confidence-building step. This transparency measure would allow the adversaries to better monitor military buildups on both sides and reduce the risk of war.

Finally, build on South Korea’s efforts at economic engagement to give Pyongyang a stake in an economic future. The United States should join in this effort.

Engagement may reduce North Korea’s paranoia. Economic engagement may deliver another benefit: It could abate Pyongyang’s incentive to sell military equipment -- including nuclear materials, or even weapons -- to generate hard currency.

However, we cannot rely on this tack. Accordingly, the United States must reserve the right to intercept any North Korean commerce that could provide nations or terrorists with nuclear capability. In the post- 9/11 era, it would be imprudent to do otherwise.

Lastly, the North’s defection from the nonproliferation treaty might encourage others. It need not. The international community must apply a policy of zero tolerance to countries that pretend to adhere to the treaty while building the capacity to violate it. It is too late to apply the principle to North Korea.

Belatedly, we are applying zero tolerance to Iraq. Had we waited any longer to confront Baghdad, we would find ourselves today in a far more precarious situation.

Iran, which gives the pretense that its nuclear program serves peaceful ends only, must be subject to the zero tolerance rule. A visit by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors planned for February must apply the most stringent scrutiny, namely the opportunity to visit any Iranian facility at any time. Washington should provide the inspectors with good intelligence.

Critics of this action plan will contend that it gives in to North Korean blackmail by allowing Pyongyang to retain its nuclear program while providing economic benefits. Bearing in mind that we cannot eliminate Kim Jong Il’s nuclear program without tremendous costs, the proposals are practical.

Consider the alternative: a further isolated North Korea, increasingly paranoid, with poor intelligence, placing its nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert while attempting to get hard currency by selling nuclear weapons to terrorists.

Such a legacy must not result from the current crisis.