- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Thirty-two months after North Korea acknowledged it had an active nuclear-weapons program, Washington and its allies remain unable to find a way to stop North Korea’s atomic-weapons efforts.

Ever since President Bush declared North Korea to be a member of an international “axis of evil” during his 2002 State of the Union address, the administration has worked diligently to pressure Pyongyang to take part in six-party talks, together with the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia to end its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Pyongyang is believed to have enough fuel for as many as eight nuclear devices. Since it is highly unlikely that U.S. intelligence has successfully infiltrated the Stalinist regime to ascertain the truth, we have no way of knowing how many nuclear weapons North Korea has — or whether it is bluffing.

Given the uncertainty, the question then centers around what we are prepared to do to persuade Pyongyang to get rid of them — and, no less important, to halt any clandestine research programs to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

It is difficult to see how negotiations that are not backed up by the credible threat of military force would persuade North Korea to change its ways. The United States tried that during the Clinton administration with the 1994 Agreed Framework accord. We now know that the agreement was a failure, and that North Korea energetically pressed ahead.

Despite the encouraging assertion made yesterday by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill (“One way or another, they’re not going to have these systems”), nobody in Washington (understandably) sounds very interested in using force to stop North Korea. Washington is working to persuade China to pressure Pyongyang into joining the six-party talks and negotiating in a serious way. But Beijing has opposed taking the penultimate diplomatic step of referring North Korea to the U.N. Security Council.

The inability of the international community to change North Korea’s behavior could persuade Japan to move forward with a nuclear-weapons program of its own. As the only country to experience a nuclear attack, Japan has for 49 years operated under a Basic Atomic Energy Law that limits nuclear research and development to peaceful uses. Ever since the 1994 crisis on the Korean Peninsula, Japanese politicians and senior officials have been talking more and more about the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrent capacity and expanding the capability to launch pre-emptive military strikes. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is looking to expand Japan’s defense role in Asia. Indeed, the country’s civilian nuclear program is so advanced that Japan may be only weeks away from developing atomic weapons if it chose to go that route — a path frought with tremendous political implications for the region.

In sum, the inability of the international community to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is likely to have profound (and in some cases, disturbing) consequences, as Pyongyang’s neighbors take steps to produce their own military deterrents.

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