Two developments over the weekend lend a new urgency to the nuclear crisis that has been brewing in North Korea, all but unattended, for the past nine months.
First, North Korean officials say they have reprocessed all 8,000 of their fuel rods at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the first and crucial step in producing the plutonium needed to make atom bombs. While they may be exaggerating, reprocessing does seem to have begun (which seemed unclear just a few weeks ago), as indicated by traces of Krypton-85, a chemical byproduct of reprocessing, that U.S. intelligence has detected in the atmosphere nearby.
Second, while North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il may be the battiest leader on the planet, he has good reason to believe Bush wants to overthrow him—even to attack his country, if that's what it takes—and the latest U.S. News & World Report will only reinforce these fears.
The magazine details a draft of a new Pentagon war plan—Plan 5030—that gives American commanders the authority to take highly provocative actions against North Korea even before a war has started. For instance, they can conduct maneuvers or hold surprise military exercises, with the aim of flushing North Korean troops out of their barracks and onto heightened alert. Or they can order RC-135 spy planes to fly right up to the border, forcing the North to scramble jet fighters. The purpose of these actions would be to strain the North Korean military's scarce resources and to sow enough confusion among its officers that they might turn against Kim's regime.
Plan 5030 has not yet been approved, but its very disclosure deepens the crisis—and the opportunity for a settlement. (This may have been the intent of those who leaked the plan—"insiders," according to the story, who worry that the plan's authors are dangerously, and deliberately, blurring the line between war and peace.)
Well over a year ago, Bush famously placed North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, in the "axis of evil"; several high-ranking aides have since expressed desires for "regime change" in Pyongyang as well as Baghdad and Tehran. North Korean foreign ministry officials have been saying for months that they need a "nuclear deterrent" to hold Bush's "hostile" intentions at bay. The lesson they learned from the gulf wars—this year's and 1991's Desert Storm—was that not having nuclear weapons invites American attack.
The news story about Plan 5030—which also reports that the plan's most fervent advocates are the same Pentagon officials who pushed for invading Iraq—will only confirm the North Koreans' perceptions, and thus accelerate their drive for nukes.
Bush can now follow one of three paths. He can push ahead with Plan 5030, step up efforts to destabilize Kim Jong-il's regime, and—in line with the other publicly known U.S. war plan, OPLAN 5027—launch a pre-emptive strike against the Yongbyon nuclear complex and other military targets. This might be a good idea (the world would be a better place without a North Korean bomb and, for that matter, without the Kim Jong-il regime), if Bush's war planners could guarantee they can destroy the complex before any bombs are produced and destroy North Korea's 10,000 or so artillery guns—some of them buried in the sides of mountains (and therefore very hard to hit), several tipped with chemical warheads, and most within range of Seoul (and thus able to kill hundreds of thousands of South Korean civilians, as well as tens of thousands of American soldiers).
The problem, of course, is that no war planner can guarantee such an attack, or even give it an acceptably high probability of success. The risks, and the costs of failure, are way too high. For better or for worse, there is no good military option.
That being the case, Bush has two choices. He can muddle through, as he has been doing—sending envoys to the occasional multilateral chat but otherwise refusing, on some misconceived notion of "principle," to do business with nasty characters—and hope that, not far down the road, Kim's regime collapses, whether from pressure, poverty, or entropy. This course, too, will not likely bear fruit, except for plutonium seedlings from Yongbyon.
So, unless Bush prefers a nuclear North Korea to the pangs of compromise, he is left with one course—a negotiated buy-out. Kim has been requesting such a buy-out ever since the crisis started last October, and if Bush can see beyond the cliché of tagging all such schemes as "blackmail" or "appeasement"—if his advisers could remind him that all diplomacy (especially nuclear diplomacy) involves a certain amount of bribery —there may be a chance to stop this wreck before it happens.
Essentially, Kim's minions say he will abandon his nuclear program and open up the reactors to inspection, in exchange for a U.S. non-aggression pact and the resumption of some economic assistance. This isn't a bad deal, really. A bipartisan group of congressmen who went to Pyongyang last month put a 10-point plan on the table, outlining a way to achieve these ends. The minions said they liked it. No one has explained why Bush shouldn't adopt the plan as his and start the talks.
Obviously, some administration officials think he should go for a negotiated solution. That's why they leaked Plan 5030—to highlight how closely this crisis might veer to war. Kim Jong-il thinks we're going to attack him, so he rushes his nuclear-weapons program to deter the onslaught—which incites Pentagon officials to drum up better plans to attack him. The alarming question before us all: Will Bush break this deadly circle, or complete it?