Dr. Strangelove's Button

June 09, 1993

Forty-three years after the outbreak of the Korean war, the United States is once again in a crisis situation with Kim Il-sung's regime in Pyongyang. This time it is not a conventional land assault on South Korea but a nuclear arms threat with dangerous implications for the non-proliferation efforts at the top of Washington's foreign policy agenda.

North Korea precipitated this crisis with its March 12 announcement that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty -- the first country to entertain such a provocative move -- and bar the International Atomic Energy Agency from inspecting two nuclear dump sites that are believed to contain evidence of an ambitious nuclear weapons program. Under IAEA protocol, that decision could become final this Saturday unless American diplomats can persuade the Pyongyang regime to change course in showdown talks at the United Nations tomorrow.

The circumstances require the Clinton administration to dance an awkward diplomatic minuet. While outright concessions to North Korea would set a terrible precedent for dealing with other near-nuclear states, too tough a stance could encourage Pyongyang hard-liners to go all-out, undermine international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and scramble the power balance in Asia.

The U.S. approach has been to suggest to North Korea that it could hope for substantial benefits -- the end of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, joint inspection of U.S. bases in South Korea, even the first steps toward diplomatic recognition -- provided it gets back in line on the NPT and allows IAEA inspections. Washington also favors a non-nuclear pact for the whole peninsula. Its formula is strictly sequential. If North Korea balks, the United States will give its backing to a Security Council resolution tightening economic sanctions against a nation that is already isolated, backward and eons behind prospering South Korea.

How effective economic sanctions would be is debatable, but at this stage Washington is leery of using military force against the suspect nuclear dump sites. Such a move could envelope the Korean peninsula in another war -- a war in which the south would have much more to lose than the north. Yet the United States cannot just stand back and totally forfeit its military option. If North Korea goes nuclear, Japan and South Korea would be tempted to follow suit, along with other nations with nuclear potential (or Ukraine, with the arsenal it inherited from the old Soviet Union).

This is a matter, unlike Bosnia, in which vital U.S. interests are directly affected. This nation just cannot allow the world's conventional arms turmoil, which is bad enough, to escalate into a global nuclear arms race that would tempt a pariah nation somewhere to punch Dr. Strangelove's button.

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