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Lessons from the North Korean Nuclear Issue
Published May 25, 2011
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The world can only hope the recent U.S.-North Korean bilateral discussions will revive the six-power talks and lead to Pyongyang’s renunciation of its nuclear weapons ambitions. Hope, however, is not policy, and recent events resemble the old line about Soviet communism as the long hard slog from capitalism to capitalism. In this case, much of the past six years seems a long, tortured march from direct U.S.-North Korean discussions to . . . direct U.S.-North Korean discussions. For all the hope, a betting person would not stake the ranch that the near future will see an end to North Korean nuclear weapons options.

Part of the reason why is that nuclear “options” can cover a multitude of sins. Most immediately, North Korea seemed to agree to dismantle production facilities but not destroy existing weapons (DOS 2007). More generally, the current international approach permits, virtually encourages, states to go right to the brink of nuclear weapons so long as their activities are declared to and occasionally visited by international inspectors. That is a shortcoming of long standing but one that policy could address— all the more so as high energy prices revive interest in nuclear power. That “lesson” is one among several this paper addresses, in a speculative fashion. Its aim is to learn lessons from or be reinforced by the North Korea case for the purposes of future policy, especially with regard to Iran.

This paper begins with military options—prevention and preemption. Then it turns to the diplomatic track where it looks first at negative sanctions, economic and political. Yet having exhausted other options, the United States turned in the 1990s to positive incentives even with regard to a regime as odious as North Korea’s. The paper then rehearses the perverse incentives at play in what remains of nonproliferation policy. Finally, it asks about the consequences of failure: What will living with new nuclear powers mean?

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