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Kim’s Latest Gambit

Prepare for the Worst

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North Korea announced yesterday that it will soon test a nuclear weapon, stating specifically that “the U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure” compel the country “to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent, as a corresponding measure for defense.”

A nuclear test conducted by North Korea holds disastrous consequences not only for the East Asian region, which is vital to America’s national security and economy, but also for global nuclear proliferation. This test, if carried out, would come in the wake of North Korea’s provocative but ultimately futile long-range ballistic missile test this past summer.

Kim’s latest gambit may be as empty a threat as that failed missile test, but it is unwise to rest on this optimistic assumption. A test could well lead South Korea and Japan to reconsider their nuclear options, prompt India to engage in more tests, and would certainly embolden Iran. Tehran in particular will watch to see if North Korea is deterred or punished—and if it is not, the Iranians will be encouraged to forge ahead with their program.

This is the latest evidence that the administration’s nonproliferation policy has failed. President Bush vowed never to let the world’s most dangerous regimes get the world’s most dangerous weapons. “Regime change” was to replace negotiations. Iraq was the first application of this radical new strategy. It failed.

The invasion of a state that did not have nuclear weapons has produced chaos in Iraq and allowed both North Korea and Iran to advance their nuclear programs more in the past five years than they had in the previous ten. North Korea has crossed redline after redline without penalty. It has boosted its estimated supply of plutonium six fold, from enough for an estimated two weapons to enough for perhaps 12.

Sanctions and threats will not deter North Korea, but negotiations might still work. We must at least try—when the United States in the past has negotiated with North Korea it has worked. Negotiations in the 1990s froze the plutonium program. Negotiations directed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 brokered a deal last September that would have ended the program completely—then sanctions ordered by Vice-President Dick Cheney undermined the deal, angering the North Koreans without causing enough pain to force capitulation.

Now, President Bush must end this internal policy paralysis and back a new, final push for a deal. He should send Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to Pyongyang. He should authorize Secretary Rice to go to the region next week, as rumored. He must reach out to China to use their influence. And perhaps he should turn to the likely new United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, a South Korean intimately familiar with the area.

Most of all, he has to end the harassing and counter-productive interference from the office of the vice-presidents and the secretary of defense. Their strategies have failed. It is time to return to realistic, firm diplomacy. The longer we wait to negotiate a deal, the higher the price and the greater the risk that no deal is possible at all.

At the very least, vigorous diplomacy will keep faith with our allies and put us in a better position to contain North Korea and tamp down regional reactions should negotiations fail. North Korea has a history of using provocative actions statements to create bargaining chips. We can hope that is the case here, but we must to prepare for the worst.

For more on the Center for American Progress’s stance on North Korea, please see:

Missile Crisis?

Think Again: The Past As Prologue

Toward a Progressive Strategy on North Korea

Experts Available for Comment on these issues at the Center for American Progress include:

Joe Cirincione, Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy

Joseph Cirincione is the Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy. Prior to joining the Center, he was Director for Non-Proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. He is one of America’s best-known weapons experts, a frequent commentator on these issues in the media, and a professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He worked for nine years in the U.S. House of Representatives on the professional staff of the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Government Operations. Cirincione’s books include Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2006), Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats, (Second Edition, 2005), and as co-author, Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security (March 2005). He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Cirincione is an honors graduate of Boston College and holds a Masters of Science with highest honors from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

Andrew J. Grotto, Senior National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress

Andrew J. Grotto is a Senior National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress, where he specializes in U.S. strategic policy and the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, the UK Guardian, the Baltimore Sun, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and a variety of scholarly journals. Most recently, Grotto co-authored Restoring American Military Power: A Progressive QDR (Center for American Progress, 2006), a comprehensive assessment of U.S. military strategy. He received his J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley (Boalt Hall), his Master’s Degree from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Kentucky, where he was a Gaines Fellow.

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