Getting tough on North Korea

To make the Korean peninsula nuclear-free, we must stop this diplomatic merry-go-round.

North Korea’s blustering insistence last week that it possesses nuclear weapons marks a new level of tension in a long, simmering crisis. While that blunt declaration alone does not prove North Korea’s nuclear status, it does signal a brazen willingness to push the edges of the diplomatic envelope.

This has become the preferred strategy of North Korea. Every step in the 2 1/2-year crisis has met with resounding international condemnation and calls for a return to the bargaining table – only to be followed by a new provocation. Keeping the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons requires getting off this merry-go-round. That, in turn, requires turning the matter over to the U.N. Security Council.

A nuclear-armed North Korea is a nightmarish prospect. The country is the world’s last remaining Stalinist dictatorship, combining an abysmal human-rights record with an Orwellian domestic security apparatus. With its economy in tatters and its people starving, North Korea is clearly hoping to cash its nuclear program in for a package of economic and energy assistance. That motivation might also have driven it onto the nuclear black market. U.S. diplomats have already presented their regional allies with evidence North Korea sold nuclear materials to Libya in 2001.

Throughout the crisis, U.S. officials have insisted any diplomatic agreement must emerge from multilateral negotiations. One-on-one discussions with North Korea would indeed be a mistake – rewarding North Korea for its nuclear indiscretions and emboldening other regimes to follow a similar path.

But six-party talks involving North Korea, the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are unlikely to resolve the crisis either. The United States has yet to find consensus among its allies. South Korea and China have resisted a tough negotiating stance – South Korea, because it values economic integration with North Korea, and China, because it fears a destabilized regime and a flood of refugees across its border.

That leaves the Security Council as the only viable forum to keep North Korea nuclear-free. The U.N. avenue does not mean automatic consensus, but it will shine a brighter international spotlight on Security Council members, who hem and haw while North Korea continues its dangerous strategy.