A Korean Primer on Nuclear Anxiety

This column originally ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 26, 2005.

To: Dear Leader Kim Jong Il of North Korea

From: Kim Kye Gwan, Vice Foreign Minister for American Affairs and chief representative to the Six-Party Talks

As you are well aware, U.S. spy satellite photographs have exposed our preparations for a nuclear weapon test. They confirm we are digging a tunnel similar to the one Pakistan constructed for its nuclear testing, and that we have even built a grandstand from which dignitaries can watch the event.

Once again, Dear Leader, your bold conduct has left government officials, policy experts and editorial writers around the world scratching their heads. Though U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley has threatened to take action against us if we test, the Bush administration remains uncertain whether you will proceed or are merely bluffing. I strongly urge you not to proceed.

Why? Because we enjoy a strong and sustainable strategic position at present, thanks to your outmaneuvering of the Bush administration. Your first skillful move came after the Americans accused you of violating the 1994 Agreed Framework by developing a uranium-enrichment program. When the Bush administration terminated all bilateral talks with us and declared the framework a failure, you did not meekly offer to terminate the uranium program as Bush apparently hoped you would, but instead you promptly resumed plutonium reprocessing and built several nuclear weapons for our country.

Constructing these weapons by reprocessing plutonium was so much easier and faster than developing a uranium-enrichment program would have been. We now have exponentially greater bargaining power than five years ago, and the world now knows that an invasion of our country would spell the certain obliteration of not only Seoul, but also Tokyo.

Furthermore, you have skillfully used the Bush administration's staunch refusal to engage in bilateral negotiations with us to your great advantage. You declare a desire to sit down and talk directly with America, knowing all the while that the White House will refuse. In so doing, you compel the United States to conduct negotiations through the two countries least interested in taking a hard-line approach toward our regime: China and South Korea.

China would prefer that we not have nuclear weapons, but it fears even more that our government will collapse and send millions of refugees streaming across our shared border. Many South Koreans, meanwhile, still have family in our country and hope for eventual reunification. Even South Koreans who are less sanguine about reunification would rather avoid finding out what desperate military measures you would take if the regime were really about to crumble.

So the Bush efforts to isolate us are wholly ineffective: Our foreign trade has grown to its highest level since 1991, soaring 22 percent between 2002 and 2004.

As long as you and the Americans go on this way, we should be fine. China will ensure that we have food and energy, and look after our interests at the United Nations Security Council; our military strength will guarantee our national security.

By conducting a nuclear test, however, you would risk upsetting this arrangement in three fundamental ways. First, a test would be front-page news around the globe, and the response would be overwhelmingly negative. It is one thing to possess nuclear weapons in theory; it is another to detonate them in what would be construed as saber rattling.

Public outcry against our nuclear program has been restrained because of the uncertainty you have cultivated about whether we have in fact developed any weapons at all. The Americans say you have, but the world no long trusts the U.S. government on such issues, thanks to Bush's bogus claims about Iraq's WMD program.

Second, we would risk losing the support of our must crucial ally, China. China has been straightforward all along about its goal of a nuclear weapon-free Korean peninsula and thus has never explicitly condoned our program. If we were to conduct a test, China would be compelled to take a stance on the matter – and I fear that it would not support a nuclear North Korea because that could lead to a nuclear South Korea or, even worse, a nuclear Japan. Without China's veto, the U.N. Security Council will then pass a resolution calling for tougher sanctions and we will be compelled to negotiate away our nuclear program, as Libya did.

Third, you risk forcing the Bush administration to come to grips with the complete failure of its current strategy. If the White House offers direct bilateral negotiations to get us to give up our nuclear weapons, both China and South Korea would pressure us to accept. We could end up without nuclear weapons with which to defend ourselves or sell to terrorists in times of extreme economic hardship – and who wants that?

Lawrence J. Korb was an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Ogden is coordinator of the Center for American Progress's International Rights and Responsibilities program.