Let's Talk Options on North Korea's Nukes


BROADWAY, VIRGINIA — Broadway, Virginia. -- Are North Korean nukes something we can live with or -- if all else fails -- are they worth going to war to prevent?

This bottom-line question is not getting the attention it needs. Thousands of American lives may be at stake -- either way -- but the American public is not getting the necessary information to help make a judgment.

The responsibility for this neglect does not lie with the administration. For diplomatic reasons, it may be required to keep hidden its own ultimate disposition. Perhaps even congressional hearings would be too official.

It is the media that must facilitate a thorough public airing of the issue. The media did this during the months leading to the war with Iraq, with a procession of diplomatic and military experts. When it came time for a congressional resolution, the public was in a position to influence the decision with its own informed judgment.

In that crisis, the news media were led by an administration that, for its own diplomatic reasons, had already publicly drawn its line in the sand. In the present situation, the news media will have to take the initiative. But they have not. If we were being told as much about our present options with North Korea's nuclear-weapons program as we are about Arkansas real-estate deals of more than a decade ago, we'd be in better shape.

Here are some of the questions I'd like to see explored intensively.

How much danger is there in letting North Korea go nuclear? I've heard a Pentagon official say that one or two atomic bombs in North Korea's possession are ''militarily insignificant.'' Is that so? What about 10 or 20? The North Koreans are notorious for selling weapons to other unsavory people.

Would our acquiescence in North Korea's present course mean that the whole nuclear non-proliferation regime would be dead? That Saddam Hussein or Muammar el Kadafi might soon brandish nuclear weapons? That the next World Trade Center-type bombing on American soil might involve a Hiroshima-size bomb?

Would allowing North Korea to go nuclear mean that Japan would develop its own atomic weapons, and if so what would that mean for international security. Or is North Korea's going nuclear no more threatening than Pakistan's, about which nothing dramatic has been done? What are North Korea's intentions?

On the answers to such questions depend the answers to a host of others. If diplomacy, or economic sanctions, don't achieve the desired outcome, what then? If the United Nations will not endorse the necessary measures -- if China blocks forceful resolutions in the Security Council -- should the U.S. act without such collective authorization? Does this crisis require us to mend fences with China on other issues?

How does time work in this situation? I've heard a diplomatic ''expert'' say that time is on our side, but if each passing month advances the North Koreans' nuclear program, how does time help us? By when do we either have to compel the outcome we want or acquiesce in the North Koreans' determination to become a nuclear power?

What does the historical record show about how the North Korean regime responds to conciliation, to reason, to pressure, to military threat?

Are the regional powers in the region -- South Korea, Japan, China -- willing to accept North Korea's having nuclear weapons, if the only alternative is war?

If military action proves to be the only way to achieve the outcome we desire -- or require -- how high would be the cost to us? To the South Koreans? Should South Korea have veto power over any American action, in view of the likely price it would pay?

If we fail to look seriously now at our choices in this confrontation, we are likely to make either of two grave errors: to slide into a war that should have been avoided, or to shy away from a war that needed to be fought.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.''

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