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Winter 2004
Stemming the Nuclear Tide
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North Korea probably has enough plutonium to make up to about 10 weapons, and may already have made them. In addition, their plutonium-production rate is sufficient to produce another bomb each year. Under a 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea pledged to freeze its nuclear-weapons activities and, in return, the United States, South Korea and Japan were to provide economic aid in the form of fuel oil and proliferation-resistant nuclear-power plants. The 1994 accord did not hold, with all sides pointing fingers at each other. North Korea “set aside” the Agreed Framework and subsequently withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (The treaty provides a measure of transparency, including inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to guard against the diversion of peaceful nuclear technologies and materials to military uses. Among the nations in the world, only India, Pakistan, Israel, and now North Korea, are not parties.)

Negotiations involving the parties to the 1994 Agreed Framework, plus China, have been in on-again/off-again mode for the past couple of years. North Korea has long professed to be concerned about an invasion by U.S. and South Korean forces. Having witnessed in recent years the announcement of a U.S. doctrine of preemption against potential threats to our security, North Korea’s assignment (by President George W. Bush) to the “Axis of Evil” and Operation Iraqi Freedom justified on the basis of regime change, the North Korean leadership may well be more concerned than ever about the prospect of U.S. military action.

What options are available to us? Preemption against North Korea’s nuclear facilities would require near-perfect intelligence about the locations of all of those facilities. Who among us would have confidence in such intelligence in the wake of our experience with Iraq? Moreover, consideration of any military action against North Korea must take into account the vulnerability of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, to North Korean artillery and missiles; indeed, Tokyo is also within range of North Korean missiles.

Diplomacy remains the least-bad option for dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem. A strengthened version of the 1994 Agreed Framework would be the most promising outcome — one that calls for a rollback of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program in return for economic aid, improved diplomatic relations and a non-aggression pledge.

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