Ignoring the Next Sept. 11

It's time to get serious about North Korea

What did the president know, and when did he know it? Oh, and what did he do to stop it? Washington buzzed with these questions last week as the Bush administration defended itself against charges from its erstwhile counter-terrorism czar, Richard A. Clarke, that it did not do all it could have to avert the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Amidst this brouhaha, an ominous portent of further and more deadly attacks upon American soil went virtually unnoticed. The North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il, through its mouthpiece Radio Pyongyang, explicitly rejected America’s demand for the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling” of its nuclear weapons program. Now that the Kim regime has removed any doubts about its intentions to press forward with its nuclear program, we are confronted with the grave possibility that some of its nuclear materials or weapons will make their way into the hands of terrorists. But the regime’s announcement failed to elicit a response from the White House, suggesting that the administration is once again bogged down in fatal complacency.

The “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK) has amply demonstrated its enthusiasm for selling illicit arms on the international market. In 2002, for instance, the Spanish navy intercepted a North Korean vessel shipping scud missiles to Yemen. Back in 1998 the DPRK was found to have sold missile technology to Pakistan’s Khan Research Lab. (As in Abdul Qadeer Khan, who confessed this year to selling nuclear technology to Libya and Iran.) The danger that the regime will now sell nuclear weapons to terrorists cannot be brushed aside.

The Bush administration chose force over genuine diplomacy in Iraq, but so far the more tangible threat in the Korean peninsula has prompted it to go to the other extreme: a lot of talk and no action. Of course, war with a state that possesses nuclear weapons and a military of over 1.2 million soldiers is a grisly option; military intervention in North Korea should be avoided at almost any cost. Yet to do nothing while North Korea transforms itself into a nuclear Wal-Mart would be equally reckless. So would bribing the regime into disarmament with promises of economic aid—an idea the administration is now openly entertaining, and which would teach Kim and other unsavory dictators that nuclear saber-rattling pays.

How, then, are we to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions? Ideally, the U.S. should find a way to convince Kim Jong Il that we really don’t harbor any desire to invade North Korea and overthrow his regime, as he seems to believe. Kim’s suspicion that the United States intends to launch “a war of aggression against the DPRK,” as last week’s radio address put it, seems to be the driving motivation behind North Korea’s nuclear build-up. But then, this suspicion, and Kim’s reticence to disarm and readmit weapons inspectors, is not so surprising after what happened to the last member of the Axis of Evil who acquiesced to inspections. After Iraq, it may take a new occupant in the White House to restore America’s credibility and get rogue regimes to abandon their defensive hostility.

But if the regime cannot be dissuaded from developing nukes, it must be deterred from exporting them. The question is how such deterrence can be both tough and (more or less) bloodless. The unsexy field of economics may hold an answer: take away the regime’s incentive to supply its goods to the nuclear market by imposing a total embargo on all trade between North Korea and other nations. (An exemption could be made for food aid.) The embargo would amount to a quarantine along North Korea’s borders and coast, enforced by the U.S., Japan, Russia, China and South Korea. Although no quarantine could make smuggling impossible, by drastically raising the cost of smuggling, the quarantine could make the business thoroughly unprofitable.


Moreover, the CIA estimates that North Korea currently imports over $1.3 billion worth of goods per year, including 85,000 barrels of oil a day. As a result, “the regime has placed emphasis on earning hard currency.” By preventing North Korea from importing goods, the quarantine could kill its demand for foreign cash and thus its incentive to trade its nuclear wares for foreign currency.

Might not the DPRK retaliate militarily against such a draconian embargo? Not necessarily—the regime would not welcome a war between the United States and North Korea any more than we would. Of course, the risk exists. But what are the alternatives? Strike militarily and guarantee war? Stand by while nukes are sold to the highest bidder?

The fact is, if the administration can not reassure Kim that he does not need nukes—and it appears that Bush has already failed that diplomatic test—we will have to choose from a uniformly unpleasant set of feasible responses. The inevitable risks of any conceivable policy do not obviate the need for a decision; they make it imperative and urgent. The president has yet to face up to that fact. And while the administration remains in a stupor, America is drifting toward the unthinkable.

Eoghan W. Stafford ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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