With last week's news that yet another tyrannical, belligerent rogue state is secretly developing nuclear weapons, U.S. policy-makers and citizens can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. Instead of contemplating a two-front war against Iraq and al-Qaida—if it happens, the country's first two-front fight since World War II—the Bush administration must now figure out how to avoid a three-front conflict.
The good news is that North Korea is not Iraq, and Northeast Asia is not the Middle East. In one significant way, North Korea is a much more formidable problem than Iraq, because it is probably already a nuclear power and has been for a decade. It operated a small nuclear reactor years ago, primarily during the first Bush administration. It is believed to have produced enough plutonium and reprocessed enough of the resulting spent fuel to actually build one or two bombs. Since acquiring the fissile material is far harder than assembling the other components for a simple bomb, North Korea should probably be assumed to possess one or two nuclear weapons.
But North Korea presents a very different kind of threat than Saddam Hussein's regime. As Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage noted, North Korea has not started a war in half a century—whereas Saddam has started several in the last 25 years and used weapons of mass destruction widely in the process. In addition, there's an ongoing diplomatic process between North Korea and the United States, as well as U.S. allies Japan and South Korea—a stark contrast to the near total absence of communication between the United States and its allies and Iraq.
And despite its secret nuclear program, North Korea has generally behaved itself over the last 10 years. In fact, this last decade has probably been the best in the country's history in terms of its relations with the outside world. In the 1980s, it brought down a South Korean airliner, assassinated several members of the South Korean government, sponsored other terrorism, and sold half a billion dollars' worth of arms a year to other extremist states.
But in the 1990s, Pyongyang began to open up to South Korea and engage the United States diplomatically. Its arms exports declined by a factor of almost 10 (more because of geopolitics than choice). Its active support for terrorism essentially stopped. It did continue to develop and launch long-range missiles until 1998, but then agreed to a moratorium on flight tests.
To be sure, this North Korean reform had more to do with necessity than virtue. North Korea lost the subsidies that it had formerly received from the Soviet Union. The peninsular military balance turned strongly against it. Hundreds of thousands of its citizens starved to death in a famine. And it finally recognized it had lost the economic competition to the South. North Korea has even begun to mimic, if in a limited way, China's economic reforms of two decades ago.
The change, of course, has not gone nearly far enough. North Korea's economy remains a mess, and its political system remains Stalinist. And, as we learned last week, it has not lost its grandiose military ambitions. Even after agreeing to shut down its large-scale, above-ground nuclear program in 1994 as part of the so-called Agreed Framework, North Korea appears to have decided to start a "basement-bomb" program around 1997.
There is some reassuring news on the technical front: Basement-bomb programs are slow and inefficient. Rather than build large nuclear reactors that bombard uranium with neutrons to form plutonium and then chemically extract that plutonium as North Korea probably did to develop its first one or two bombs, an underground bomb program requires energy-intensive devices that mechanically or electromagnetically separate lighter U-235 from the heavier U-238. Only U-235 can sustain the chain reaction needed in a bomb, but it constitutes just 0.7 percent of natural uranium. The separation process can use various devices (centrifuges that spin uranium in gaseous form, diffusion membranes through which uranium passes, calutrons that are essentially giant magnets), but all are complicated, expensive, and slow. If North Korea was still trying to acquire steel or aluminum to build centrifuges as recently as this past summer, it may not have made much progress yet toward acquiring what could be its third nuclear device.
So, for a combination of strategic and technical reasons, there is no particular urgency about the North Korean situation. That said, the status quo is unsupportable over the longer term. Former Defense Secretary William Perry's words from 1994, which he has just repeated in a Washington Post op-ed with Harvard Professor Ashton Carter, remain true today: The United States cannot let North Korea develop a nuclear arsenal. One or two bombs are one thing, an indefinite and growing number are another. Just as the Clinton administration inherited a mess from the first Bush administration and had to devise a way to prevent North Korea from developing half a dozen bombs a year using new reactors, the second Bush administration must now find a way to fix the mess we are still in today.
What are our choices? Pre-emptive war to overthrow North Korea's regime is an unpalatable option. Given the proximity of Seoul to North Korean artillery, the huge size of the North Korean army, and the ferocity of North Korean fighters (assuming they retain some of the attributes they displayed in the Korean War 50 years ago), any such war would almost surely lead to hundreds of thousands of casualties. And pre-empting North Korea's nuclear program, as the Clinton administration threatened to do eight years ago, can only work against large, fixed, known sites. It is probably not an option against a secret basement-bomb program. So, military force is a last resort.