North Korea’s third nuclear test, on Feb. 12, coming two months after firing a missile into orbit, brings the country perilously close to becoming a nuclear-weapons state in fact, not just in the regime’s extravagant rhetoric. On Tuesday at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, Pyongyang’s representative threatened South Korea with “final destruction.” Such bellicosity is nothing new, but North Korea has never been so close to being able to make good on its threats.
Predictably, those who urged for years that Pyongyang could be negotiated out of its nuclear objective now argue that the world must accept reality and rely on deterrence and containment. Just as they claimed sanctions would prevent the North from crossing the nuclear threshold, they now say that sanctions will prevent it from selling these arms and technologies world-wide.
These remain counsels of defeat, resulting ineluctably in the North’s continued progress. A new Northeast Asian nuclear reality is emerging, but the U.S. and its allies shouldn’t placidly acquiesce in it or its dangerous implications, particularly regarding Iran and other proliferation threats.
Military force isn’t an option as long as Seoul remains resolutely opposed, understandably fearing that South Koreans would be targets for Pyongyang’s retaliation through nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The South might change its view because of ever-more-belligerent conduct by the North. But for now South Korean politicians are again demanding that the South develop nuclear weapons. Similar arguments are being made sotto voce in Japan.
It is simply not in America’s interest to see nuclear weapons proliferate, even into seemingly safe hands. But if President Obama pursues his dream of a “nuclear zero” world, Japan, South Korea and other countries long sheltered under America’s atomic umbrella will have urgent second thoughts. Mr. Obama has never seemed to comprehend that unilateral U.S. strategic-weapons reductions are as likely to encourage nuclear proliferation as reduce it.
The Since Pyongyang verges on possessing deliverable nuclear arms that we cannot safely pry from its grasp, the obvious alternative is to replace the North Korean regime with one that will renounce nuclear weapons, as did post-apartheid South Africa and post-Soviet Ukraine and Belarus. The best way to achieve that aim is through peacefully reunifying the Korean peninsula.
Opponents of such a move will cry that China would never agree. Beijing may be immovable, but the U.S. has barely tried persuasion. If China continues insisting on maintaining North Korea as a buffer state, Kim Jong Eun’s dictatorship will survive. But if, as is increasingly true for younger Chinese leaders, Beijing comes to see the North as the albatross it is, the possibilities for change become palpable.
Beijing publicly says it opposes a nuclear-armed North Korea because the resultant instability in Asia will impede China’s economic development. This is a clear and correct analysis. Unfortunately, China hasn’t followed its own logic, and its North Korea policy has long been schizophrenic.
Beijing condemns Pyongyang’s nuclear program but doesn’t exercise its extraordinary leverage, notably supplying 90%-plus of the North’s energy and substantial amounts of food and humanitarian aid. China’s real fear is that pressuring the North could cause the regime to collapse, creating two threats: a flood of impoverished Korean refugees into northeastern China and American troops on its Yalu River border.
Both fears are exaggerated. First, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo should make it clear that they would do everything possible to prevent or mitigate a refugee crisis following the collapse of the North Korean state. That is desirable on humanitarian grounds alone, but also because North-South integration would proceed more beneficially from thorough planning to stabilize the North’s population in place and to provide adequate assistance after the Kim regime collapses.
Second, the U.S. doesn’t need or want its military forces situated along the Yalu, any more than for years Washington has wanted them positioned along the Demilitarized Zone. The American objective, currently being implemented, is to have them near the peninsula’s southern tip, available and mobile for use elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific. Chinese leaders may not welcome that deployment either, but they find it more palatable than facing U.S. soldiers across the Yalu.
North Korea is an unnatural relic of a “temporary” Moscow-Washington arrangement following Japan’s defeat. It has no historical claim to legitimacy as a separate state. Its citizens have never freely consented to it. And its continued existence leaves 23 million people perennially close to starvation. We have repeatedly heard from naifs that Pyongyang was about to open up. It never does. North Korea cannot open and survive, as the regime itself well knows. But it almost has deliverable nuclear weapons.
Persuading China to support reunification is the best answer. If China disagrees, nuclear-capable Japan and South Korea, ranking among China’s worst fears, could become reality. A reunification strategy should have been pressed decades ago, but better late than never.
This column was originally published by the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).